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Winter Counts packs a lot into its 336 pages: Written by Denver’s David Heska Wanbli Weiden, 56, the thriller follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a private enforcer hired to rough up crooks when the legal system fails. But after a heroin overdose hospitalizes his nephew, Virgil must find the supplier while confronting problems that mirror real-life issues on U.S. reservations. Before the book’s August 25 release, we asked Weiden about his Sicangu Lakota identity, seeking justice on tribal lands, and why he thinks more Native Americans should write crime fiction.

Photo courtesy of Ecco Books

5280: Winter Counts is set on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, where your mother is from. Did visiting as a child influence the book?
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Very much so. At the reservation, they’d think I was this wealthy, half-Native city kid, which was funny, as I lived in Elyria-Swansea, one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods. And I didn’t know many Native kids in Denver, which fostered a sense of otherness.

That feeling is central to the story.
Both the hero and his nephew are taunted on the reservation for being an “iyeska,” a term in the Lakota language that has become a slur for “half-breed.” The underlying theme is about identity. How do we reconcile never being immersed in a dominant culture?

Why tackle those weighty themes in a thriller?
I love crime fiction, and I think it’s suited for Native writers because you can examine injustice and how it’s resolved. And it’s not always resolved in a way that’s fair to Native Americans.

How so?
Native nations have limited power to look into crimes and punish lawbreakers. They have to turn cases over to the FBI, which doesn’t always investigate or prosecute. I also touch upon poverty on reservations and other problems. It’s not a catalog of gripes, because I want it to be a page-turner. But it’s informational, because Natives are rarely seen in the broader media culture. I’m hoping that more Native writers will turn to crime fiction to let people know what’s happening today on tribal lands.

Is it rare for indigenous authors to write thrillers?
There are a number of crime novels written by non-Native folks that are set on reservations, but not many that have been written by an actual Native person.

Why do you think that is?
For too long, the publishing industry expected us to follow the path laid out by some of the trailblazers of Indigenous literature, who wrote magical and literary realism. I love their work, but there are lots of different genres to write in. I’m happy to hear that there are more Native crime writers emerging.

In your book, the Mile High City plays a surprise role.
Some of the story takes place in Denver, and I was thrilled to build in some city lore. Virgil has a pivotal moment in the Hangar Bar on East Colfax. Now, sadly, it’s closed, but I enjoyed showing how Denver has changed.

Purchase Winter Counts on Amazon

This article was originally published in 5280 August 2020.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.