“Winter Counts,” the debut novel by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, is not as deeply mystical or ethnographic as the novels of the late Tony Hillerman. Those stories were centered on traditional Navajo police detectives working crimes amid the juniper-scented arroyos and sandstone canyons of the American Southwest, mysteries and investigations colored by cautious, respectful glimpses into the Navajo belief system.
This new work, too, is a passport into Indian Country, in this case the Rosebud Indian Reservation of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota. Weiden is an enrolled member of that tribe, whose land hugs the Nebraska border just east of the better-known Pine Ridge reservation.
It is crime fiction, the story of Virgil Wounded Horse, a troubled and complicated man who makes a living as a vigilante for hire, an enforcer who dispenses violent justice when federal authorities fail to investigate or prosecute a murder, a case of child sexual abuse or other felony committed on the reservation. Much of the story involves Virgil’s determination to find and punish drug dealers who have targeted his nephew and other young people.
The novel also is a knowing, revealing look at life on a reservation. The resentment and mistrust that many Indians feel toward white people is palpable, whether disinterested or corrupt officials, or wasicus who claimed reservation land during the allotment time, or tourists seeking “poverty porn.” Virgil decries the focus that white journalists place on the negative and the stereotypical, but he also makes us see the sadness and evils that pockmark the reservation: drugs, suicide, alcoholism, poverty, despair. Abandoned buildings with new or faded posters of missing girls. Tribal government stained by corruption. The novel, James A. McLaughlin writes in a blurb, is “an urgent dispatch from Indian Country.”
But the spirit, joy, pride and resilience of Native people also comes through these pages: respect for elders, the hunger for education and meaningful work, a growing interest in Lakota language, customs and traditions. A subplot focuses on the development of traditional Indigenous cuisine and the effort to move away from fry bread, linked to high rates of diabetes among Indians, and other foods derived by necessity from cheap commodities long distributed by the feds. “All around me I saw Natives doing good work,” Virgil says.
Winter counts were the pictorial calendars used by the Lakota, drawn or painted images showing the most significant event of a year. As Virgil searches for his nephew, he reflects on loss and laments what will be counted as “the winter of my sorrow.” But this “thug” enforcer whose story began with a rejection of Lakota spiritual practices will find redemption and peace through a yuwipi, a ceremony involving a sacred pipe, the burning of sweetgrass braids and the enveloping prayers of his people.
Chuck Haga, a longtime Star Tribune writer and columnist, lives and teaches in Grand Forks, N.D.
By: David Heska Wanbli Weiden.
Publisher: Ecco, 325 pages, $27.99.