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Arts & Life

A conversation with 'Winter Counts' author David Heska Wanbli Weiden

This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted 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 region, the Siouxland Libraries host "One Book Siouxland." This year's title: the novel Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

The books is a thrilling crime drama that unfolds primarily in the Rosebud Reservation. It's protagonist is a complicated hero named Virgil Wounded Horse. Virgil is both violent and compassionate, decisive and conflicted. He's about to be forced to rethink everything he knows about his own identity as he is thrown in to a web of crime and deceit that reaches his own family in tragic ways.

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

The following transcript was autogenerated and edited for clarity.

Lori Walsh:

Let's say at first it's such a good book. It's been such a gift to be able to read it. And lots of people in this community are reading it too. So, thank you first and foremost.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

It's my pleasure. I have deep South Dakota roots. My father was from Avon and my mother grew up on the Rosebud reservation so this is like coming home to me. I live in Denver, but this really is my home in so many ways.

Lori Walsh:

I'm sure you know this as a writer: There are so many books where the setting is one the reader is familiar with, but you can point out all the things that the author got wrong. A highway that's 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 that. Everything about it feels so authentic and real. Tell me a little bit about why that was important to you to get those details right? This is a novel and you can take liberties with it, but it is so grounded in this sense of place.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Well, I want to say right off the bat that I did make up a few things in there. There are some buildings and establishments that don't actually exist in the book, but I did try to keep it fairly grounded in reality. The town of Valentine, Nebraska, I tried to portray accurately. There are a couple of chapters in Denver I know I portray those accurately. I mainly wanted to portray the Rosebud Reservation accurately, but also positively. I think too often we get caught up in what's called poverty porn. Yes, we have lots problems on the reservation. Unemployment, poor healthcare, many, many difficulties. I didn't want to dwell on those. I wanted to portray the reservation 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 an enforcer. His job is to get paid pocket money to take care of business that the tribal police or the federal police are unwilling or unable to address. He's the guy you call when you want a problem solved, which is very meta because you're also talking about tribal law and the restrictions and the limitations of that legal system. Virgil is kind of a violent guy, and yet he's wrestling with how violent he should be.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Virgil Wounded Horse is the favorite character. He's my favorite by far; He's such an interesting guy in so many ways. Yes, he's a hired vigilante. You can hire him if someone harms your daughter, your auntie, your sister, your child, and the feds won't do anything about it. I should note that I am a professor of Native American studies and so I've been teaching about these issues for decades. The context is there's a law called the Major Crimes Act, which says that any felony crime committed on the reservation must be farmed out to the FBI and the US attorney's offices.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

But, they are declining to prosecute a fair number of these cases, and so violent criminals are set free. Well, somebody hurt your child and you see the offender walking down the street, you might be sorely tempted to hire a vigilante like Virgil Wounded Horse. That is the background, but there's so much more going on. He's also raising his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. So, he's trying 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's grappling with various issues.

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk about Marie, because she is such a complete rich character. Part of that is because we see these flashes of her as a child. She's the kid who comes to school wearing wolf ears for a week. The other kids think she's a little strange. But, also she's grown into this fascinating adult who is discovering what food means in her life and in the life of her community. She can make a great fry bed, but she can also forage for turnips and turn them into something indigenous and healthy. Tell me a little bit about working with her character.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Oh, boy. Marie Short Bear is the character I grappled with more than anything. In the early drafts of this book, Marie was not fully fleshed out. So I went back to the drawing board and I tried to give her a history. As you noted, I give a little bit of her backstory when she's in elementary school— she wears wolf ears and she howls. That came from my kid. I have two sons and that actually happened in one of my son's elementary schools. So I took that directly from him.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

But, I gave her a backstory that she's wealthier. She sometimes feels she doesn't fit in on the reservation, and you're right, she wants to go to medical school. She wants to also learn how to cook indigenous food, be part of this indigenous food renaissance that's happening across the country. So, she's a multifaceted person as well. And she and Virgil had been together, but then they broke up, but obviously over the course of the book, events happen.

Lori Walsh:

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

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Yeah. I need to credit Sulari Gentill who came up with that.

Lori Walsh:

Thank you for giving me the name.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I think she's crystallized a thought that's been rolling around in my head about crime fiction and other genre fiction. I think in many ways crime fiction is picking up the mantle of the social novel. We are grappling with issues of social justice, racism. Many issues that I think a lot — some, not all — but literary fiction writers have dropped. My argument is that crime fiction and other genre fiction is really the new social novel that examines these issues critically. I want people to enjoy this book. I want people to stay up all night reading and because they need to find out what happens next. But, I also hope they walk away with an understanding of what life is like for indigenous people. And, also an understanding of these political issues that continue to plague native people today.

Lori Walsh:

I definitely stayed up all night finishing this book and definitely will be thinking about it for some time to come. Also, not to minimize anything, but do you know how to break someone's thumbs?! (Laughter) Because there is some detailed thumb-breaking in this book. My thumbs still hurt. Tell us about crafting scenes of violence in a way that is never gratuitous, but yet is completely authentic to the character and the details.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

So, 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 that the violence is earned.

Lori Walsh:

Yes.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I hope that the violence is in context and is consistent with what is going on with the characters. Now, I have not yet broken anyone's thumb. I'm not ruling it out, but I did in fact have 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, one involving a cattle prod. I won't give anything away, but yeah, I worked very hard to craft the violent scenes so that A, they were exciting, but B that there wasn't anything that was gratuitous. I really struggled with those and I hope I succeeded.

Lori Walsh:

I felt that. I'm a tender soul regarding violent moments. But those scene were not something that got in my way at all of my deep involvement with the book. Now, I don't think I'm giving too much away, but am 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 quite happy to talk about that. There is in fact a sequel coming.

Lori Walsh:

Yes!

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

I'm writing it right now, the title is Wisdom Corner. I was originally going to call it Wounded Horse, but my partner is the indigenous writer Erica Wurth. And she has a novel coming out from Flat Iron called White Horse. We decided that's too many horse books in one household. So, in fact the next book will be called Wisdom Corner. All of the characters that you love will be back plus really new, exciting characters. So, I'm really, really thrilled about this. The book has been optioned for film production.

Lori Walsh:

Excellent.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

Now, that doesn't really mean anything.

We'll see if and when that comes to pass, but a quite well-known production company has in fact purchased the rights.

Lori Walsh:

Talk to our indigenous listeners now, especially about how you handle Virgil Wounded Horse's navigation of traditional values. He's dealing with these people who are, as he calls a bit tradish, and he's a little resistant to it, but yet open to it. Tell people about that part of his character development.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

So, Virgil Wounded Horse is an iyeska. I'm an iyeska. An iyeska is a Lakota word that meant translator who speaks white, but is now sort of a slur for half-breed. So, it's not a term that you throw around lightly. He is living in between two worlds and so really the book is a story of identity. Indeed if it gets made into a film, 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's very conflicted by his duality.

Lori Walsh:

It's such a great book it's called Winter Counts. Tonight you are on stage 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 so much. It's been a delight and I very much look forward to the next book.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden:

My pleasure. And thank you so much for having me.