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On the reservation, the past is never behind you

Cover of Winter Counts
A review of Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Virgil Wounded Horse tells himself he is doing the right thing. The half Lakota, half White Virgil is the Rosebud Reservation’s unofficial enforcer at the heart of David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s literary crime debut Winter Counts. For a few hundred dollars, Virgil will provide families with some sense of justice, delivering with his fists the verdicts that will never come from a federal government that neither allows the Lakota to hold their own trials, and rarely prosecutes in federal courts those crimes committed on reservation lands. Virgil, who grew up on the impoverished reservation and has already faced down more than his fair share of demons, starts to feel that it might be time to turn away from the vigilante life, focus on raising his nephew Nathan, and maybe rekindle that spark he has for Marie, who has her own dreams for the reservation. He’s about to turn down a tribal elder who comes for his help tracking down possible drug dealers on the reservation, but when Nathan gets caught up in a drug bust that could spell the end of his future, the stakes for Virgil become personal. As it becomes clear that a Mexican drug cartel is connected to the reservation deals and federal agents get involved, Virgil knows he’s in one of the worst positions possible: he could either commit the cardinal sin of working with the feds, or go solo and risk running afoul of people would could erase his or Nathan’s existence in a very creative and painful way. Either way, Virgil knows that there are few he can trust, and it will fall to him to do what’s right—if he can convince himself he knows what that is.

Weiden, a member of Sicangu Lakota nation, draws on his own research as a professor of Native American Studies and the experiences of his family, who lived on the Rosebud Indian Reservation for generations to create a fully realized portrait of the complexities of Lakota life and the historical injustices that still impact daily life there. The Rosebud reservation, covering the windswept South Dakota-Nebraska borderlands, is captured in its full range of contradictions: a place where a baby might die a terrible death due to negligence, but also one where community members immediately come to support Virgil in whatever way they can. Virgil struggles with his own conflicting feelings: cynical of White culture but not entirely trusting of the resurgent Lakota traditions, unwilling to put faith in White man’s justice but entirely aware of the corruption in tribal leadership. Unable to escape the virtual rez in his mind and unwilling to leave the physical one, Virgil’s struggles about his identity are where Winter Counts really shines. A little less successful is the thriller aspect; Weiden really ramps up the action in the second half of the book with some loss of that introspection that makes the first part of the book shine, and experienced thriller readers might find the suspense a bit predictable.  But these are minor quibbles on the whole. Weiden’s Virgil is a welcome addition to crime fiction shelves, and readers can look forward to continuing his story in future installments.

Nov 20, 2020