A conversation with ‘Winter Counts’ author David Heska Wanbli Weiden

This interview is taken from SDPB’s daily public affairs programme, In the momenthosted by Lori Walsh.

What happens when everyone in a community is encouraged to read the same book? The South Dakota One Book for 2022 is Our history is the future by Nick Estes. In the Sioux Falls area, Siouxland Libraries hosts “One Book Siouxland”. This year’s title: the novel Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

The books are a gripping crime drama set primarily on the Rosebud Reservation. Its protagonist is a complicated hero named Virgil Wounded Horse. Virgil is both violent and compassionate, decisive and confrontational. He is about to be forced to rethink everything he knows about his own identity as he is thrown into a web of crime and deception that tragically affects his own family.

Author David Heska Wanbli Weiden joined us at the SDPB studio in Sioux Falls.

The following transcript has been automatically generated and edited for clarity.

Lori Walsh:

Let’s say that at first it’s such a good book. It’s such a gift to be able to read it. And a lot of people in this community read it too. So thank you first of all.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

It’s my pleasure. I have deep roots in South Dakota. My dad was from Avon and my mom grew up on the Rosebud Reservation, it’s like coming home to me. I live in Denver, but this is truly my home in many ways.

Lori Walsh:

I’m sure you know this as a writer: there are so many books where the setting is what the reader knows, but you can point out all the things the author got wrong. A highway that is not the real highway. Or a town that’s slightly misnamed or something where the reader would say, “Well, that wouldn’t really happen in South Dakota” or “That wouldn’t really happen here.”

This book is completely free of it. Everything is so authentic and real. Tell me a bit about why it was important for you to get these details right? It’s a romance and you can take liberties with it, but it’s so grounded in that sense of place.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Well, I want to say right now that I made up a few things in there. There are buildings and establishments that don’t actually exist in the book, but I tried to keep it fairly grounded in reality. The town of Valentine, Nebraska, I tried to represent it accurately. There are a few chapters in Denver, I know I describe them accurately. Most of all, I wanted to portray the Rosebud Reserve accurately, but also in a positive way. I think too often we get caught up in what is called poverty pornography. Yes, we have many problems on the reservation. Unemployment, poor health, many, many difficulties. I didn’t want to dwell on that. I wanted to depict the reserve as it exists, but also show the joy, the happiness, the resilience of the res.

Lori Walsh:

Let’s talk about Virgil Wounded Horse. He is a performer. His job is to get paid pocket money to take care of cases that the Tribal or Federal Police won’t or can’t handle. He’s the guy you call when you want to solve a problem, which is very meta because you’re also talking about tribal law and the restrictions and limits of that legal system. Virgil is a violent guy, and yet he struggles with the violence he should have.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Virgil Wounded Horse is the favorite character. It is by far my favorite; He’s such an interesting guy in so many ways. Yes, he is a committed vigilante. You can hire him if someone hurts your daughter, your aunt, your sister, your child, and the feds won’t do anything about it. I should point out that I am a professor of Native American studies and have been teaching these issues for decades. The background is that there is a law called the Major Crimes Act, which states that any criminal crime committed on the reservation must be referred to the FBI and US Attorney’s offices.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

But, they refuse to prosecute many of these cases, and so the violent criminals are released. Well, if someone has hurt your child and you see the abuser walking down the street, you might be strongly tempted to hire a vigilante like Virgil Wounded Horse. That’s the context, but there’s so much more going on. He is also raising his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. So he tries to come to terms with that. He is dealing with his ex-girlfriend Marie. So, there’s a lot going on in this novel; He is struggling with various problems.

Lori Walsh:

Let’s talk about Marie, because she’s such a rich character. It’s partly because we see these flashes of her as a child. He’s the kid who comes to school with wolf ears for a week. The other kids think she’s a bit strange. But she has also become this fascinating adult who discovers what food means in her life and in the life of her community. She can make a great fry bed, but she can also scavenge turnips and turn them into something native and healthy. Tell me a bit about your work with his character.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Oh man. Marie Short Bear is the character I fought with more than anything. In early drafts of this book, Marie was not fully fleshed out. So I went back to the drawing board and tried to give it a story. As you noted, I tell a bit about her backstory when she was in elementary school – she wears wolf ears and she howls. It comes from my son. I have two sons and this happened at one of my son’s elementary schools. So I took it straight from him.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

But, I told her that she is richer. She sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit on the stash, and you’re right, she wants to go to med school. She also wants to learn how to cook indigenous foods, to be part of this indigenous food renaissance happening across the country. So he is also a multi-faceted person. And she and Virgil had been together, but then they broke up, but obviously over the course of the book things happen.

Lori Walsh:

I was reading something you wrote online. You quoted an Australian author, who said that the detective story is the new “resistance literature”. Boy, I like that. Talk a bit about it in the sense that detective fiction, at its best, is a place to deal with people who are much closer to violent crime, often disproportionately.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Yeah. I have to thank Sulari Gentill who came up with this.

Lori Walsh:

Thanks for giving me the name.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I think she crystallized a thought that was running through my head about detective fiction and other genre fiction. I think in many ways detective fiction picks up the torch from the social novel. We are grappling with issues of social justice, of racism. Many issues that I think about a lot – some, not all – but literary fiction writers have given up. My point is that detective fiction and other genre fiction is really the new social novel that critically examines these issues. I want people to enjoy this book. I want people to stay up all night reading and because they need to know what’s next. But I also hope they come away with an understanding of what life is like for Indigenous people. And also an understanding of those political issues that continue to plague Indigenous peoples today.

Lori Walsh:

I definitely stayed up all night to finish this book and will definitely be thinking about it for a while. Also, not to minimize anything, but do you know how to break someone’s thumbs?! (Laughter) Because there are detailed thumb breaks in this book. My thumbs still hurt. Tell us about creating scenes of violence in a way that is never gratuitous, yet completely authentic to character and detail.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

The book is quite violent. I’m not going to minimize that. I want to give fair warning that there are some very violent scenes in the book, but I hope the violence is deserved.

Lori Walsh:

Yes.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I hope the violence is in context and consistent with what’s going on with the characters. Now, I haven’t broken anyone’s thumb yet. I’m not ruling it out, but I actually had to google how to do it. And so-

Lori Walsh:

The life of a writer!

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I wrote that and then some of the other scenes as well, including one involving a cattle prod. I won’t divulge anything, but yes, I worked very hard to design the violent scenes so that A they were exciting, but B that there was nothing gratuitous. I really struggled with those and hope I made it.

Lori Walsh:

I felt that. I am a tender soul in the face of violent moments. But these scenes weren’t at all awkward for my deep involvement in the book. Now, I don’t think I’m giving too much away, but I’m led to believe that this is a character who could handle many books in the future. Tell me what’s next for you.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I’m very happy to talk about it. There is indeed a sequel to come.

Lori Walsh:

Yes!

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I’m writing it right now, the title is Wisdom Corner. I was going to call it originally injured horse, but my partner is indigenous writer Erica Wurth. And she has a novel coming out of Flat Iron called White horse. We decided there were too many horse books in one home. So, in fact, the next book will be called Wisdom Corner. All the characters you love will be back, along with some exciting new characters. So, I’m really, really thrilled about that. The book was chosen for film production.

Lori Walsh:

Excellent.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Now, that really doesn’t mean anything.

We’ll see if and when that happens, but a fairly well-known production company actually bought the rights.

Lori Walsh:

Talk to our native listeners now, especially about how you handle browsing traditional Virgil Wounded Horse values. He deals with those people who are, as he kinda calls tradition, and he is a little resistant to it, but yet open to it. Tell people about this part of his character development.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Thus, Virgil Wounded Horse is an iyeska. I am an iyeska. An iyeska is a Lakota word that used to mean translator who speaks white, but is now sort of an insult for mestizo. So it’s not a term you throw around lightly. He lives between two worlds and so really the book is a story of identity. Indeed, if this becomes a movie, I think we will have to portray how Virgil navigates these traditional waters of Lakota culture with his moments of resistance against them. So he is very much in conflict with his duality.

Lori Walsh:

It’s such a good book it’s called Winter Accounts. Tonight, you’re onstage with Vernon Brown at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Sioux Falls at 6:30 p.m. Registration is required, so go to Siouxlandlib.org/onebook. And David, thank you very much. It’s a delight and I look forward to the next book.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

With pleasure. And thank you very much for having me.

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