A Haunting, Layered Thriller: A Review of David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s “Winter Counts”

"Winter Counts"

Writing an entertaining novel is no easy task. Writing a novel that contains enough pulp to be entertaining but also has rhyzomatic tendrils that reach deep into the realm of cultural significance, history, and justice is even harder. David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts does exactly that. At once a violent, touching story about the effects of the opioid pandemic in a Native American reservation and a celebration of the strength and resilience of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, Winter Counts is book that demands to be read not just because it’s engaging, but because it matters. 

People in the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota know that the law won’t do much to take care of their grievances. The legal system ignores them and the tribal council is also flawed, so they turn to Virgil Wounded Horse for justice. Virgil is the local enforcer on the reservation, the last option for those who are seeking the justice the system won’t grant them. Virgil is used to take care of problems with some detachment, but when heroin trafficking seeps into the reservation and his nephew ends up in deep trouble, his vigilantism becomes personal. With the help of his ex-girlfriend, Virgil starts investigating the gangs that are bringing in the dope, a search that takes him to Denver and shows him how rapidly cartels are growing and infiltrating new territory. But taking them down won’t be easy, and Virgil has to do it all while worrying about his nephew, reconnecting with his ex, and coming to terms with his heritage and the practices of his people. 

Winter Counts is a crime novel about identity. The Sicangu Lakota Nation is at the core of everything here despite everything that’s happening. For example, Heska created a character, Lack, who’s an important chef obsessed with showing Native Americans how to go back to their original diets instead of the stuff they eat now. Also, Virgil participates in a series of practices that he had moved away from and realizes the power of the spiritual world and its relation to his culture. Lastlty, there is some Lakota sprinkled through the narrative. From single words to entire phrases, Heska manages complete cultural immersion while also highlighting Otherness by using the Lakota language. 

While this is fiction, there is a lot of truth in this novel. Heska researched how the legal system has failed Native Americans and made that one of the running themes of this book. “By federal law, tribal police couldn’t prosecute any felony crimes that happened on the rez,” we learn from Virgil as he thinks back to the historical events that led to the current situation. The result of that was that “tribal courts could only charge misdemeanor crimes—little stuff, like shoplifting or disorderly conduct. The tribal police had to refer all felonies to the federal investigators. But the feds usually declined to prosecute most of them. They’d follow through on some, usually high-profile cases or violent crimes. But standard sex assault cases, thefts, assault and battery—these crimes were usually ignored.”   

The current literary landscape demands courage of writers who want to engage with prickly subjects like identity and history, and Heska delivers. Sure, this is a novel about righteous violence, cleaning up the rez, falling in love all over again, making decisions that will affect he future, and punishing the bad guys, but it’s also about looking back and addressing the many ways in which history has treated Native Americans and how they have been portrayed in media for the last few decades:

Back in the time before Columbus, there were only Indians here, no skyscrapers, no automobiles, no streets. Of course, we didn’t use the words Indian or Native American then; we were just people. We didn’t know we were supposedly drunks or lazy or savages. I wondered what it was like to live without that weight on your shoulders, the weight of the murdered ancestors, the stolen land, the abused children, the burden every Native person carried.

Heska holds up a mirror that shows us what it means to be Native American today, but he reminds us of history while doing so. That said, the novel is never preachy, mostly because stating the truth with great economy of language is never preachy. The result is a novel that will satisfy those looking for the adrenaline of crime fiction and thrillers, those who need a bit of blood, killing, drugs, and guns, and those who want to enjoy all that with a deeper layer of meaning, a more nuanced narrative that digs deep into a culture that, for decades, had to fight against those who wanted to erase it: 

A group of middle school kids from Pine Ridge had gone to a minor-league hockey game as a reward for making honor roll, but a group of fifteen white men sitting in a corporate box above them poured beer on the kids and shouted nasty slurs at them. The children were humiliated and left the arena in shame. They identified the men that did the deed and charged one of them—just one—with disorderly conduct. To no one’s surprise, the jury acquitted the man, and the kids learned a bitter lesson in how the justice system works in the good old USA. And people wonder why Natives want to stay on the reservation.

There’s a beautiful thing happening with Native American literature. I wouldn’t call it a renaissance or a comeback because it never went away, but I would definitely call it an explosion, both in terms of quantity and quality. What Heska has done in Winter Counts is special, but it matters even more when taken as part of the current wave of outstanding Native American literature, which includes superb voices like Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee writer Erika T. Wurth, Blackfeet horror maestro Stephen Graham Jones, Cherokee National Book Award Finalist Brandon W. Hobson, Chippewa writer Chris La Tray, and many others. Winter Counts, which works as both an action-packed novel and a statement, deserves to be read. I can’t wait to see what Heska does next. 


Winter Counts
by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Ecco; 336 p.

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