James Welch Fest: Indigenous Literary Thriller by David Weiden | Arts & Theater
A literary thriller about the Rosebud reservation. The protagonist is Lakota, torn by loss and driven by the need to solve a troubling case. Writer David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Sicangu Lakota) aimed to mark the genre with his debut novel, “Winter Counts.”
“I try to take the crime novel genre and evolve it into a uniquely Indigenous way of writing and thinking. So that’s my goal, and hopefully I’ve had some success,” Weiden said.
The book centers on Virgil Wounded Horse, who acts as a private “enforcer” on the reservation. When the Tribal Police refuse to investigate a rape or assault, and the federal government doesn’t either, locals call on them to intervene, by force.
Wounded Horse raises his teenage nephew, Nathan, and heals a broken heart on multiple fronts. He is still coping after a failed relationship with Marie Short Bear, the ambitious and community-minded daughter of a tribal councillor. She reenters her life when he is hired to investigate a drug cartel that has begun smuggling heroin into the reservation, causing overdoses among young people. Wounded Horse’s investigation takes them to Denver and back, as the layers of plot begin to develop at a rapid pace with literary prose and characters fleshed out.
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“A lot of crime novels are heavier on the plot, ‘Winter Counts’ hopefully has a great plot, but also dives deep into character building,” he said. He wanted to offer “excursions on historical, cultural and political issues, such as the burgeoning new movement for Indigenous food sovereignty”, and tributes to Indigenous music, art and fashion.
“I tried to develop and break the norm of the crime novel form a bit,” he said.
Other wrinkles you might not find in typical noir include several surreal sequences, including one that involves a Lakota spiritual ceremony.
The title refers to the Lakota calendar, in which they track important events of the past year. For Wounded Horse, this signals the pains he has been through and the pains he is trying to prevent.
Although there are many thrillers and crime novels on reservations, it is less common to see one written by an Aboriginal author. He cited Louis Owens, who wrote “significant” books in the 1990s, but otherwise his role models in this genre were few.
For “just under 30 years, there has not been a Native American author published by what we call the Big Five New York publishing houses,” he said. The small presses did, but “for about 30 years, native authors have been shut out of the big houses, and I’ve been surprised by that.”
As he worked on the novel, the idea terrified him in some way – he didn’t know if it would be published, or how readers would react to a book that he had “put so much of my life and my be in the writing.” He worked there while teaching eight classes a year at a university plus summer school, and raising a family – sometimes he finished a chapter in a hot car during flag football practice, or in the closet. a janitor while his son waited his turn in a competitive Rubik’s Cube Tournament.
After its publication in early 2020, it won many awards. The Rap Sheet blog ranked it #1 on its 2021 list of “Most Decorated Mysteries, Detectives, and Thrillers”.
Weiden is coming to Missoula for the first James Welch Native Lit Festival, where he will participate in a panel on thrillers and speculative fiction. (See schedule.)
He said there had “never been anything like this before,” with the roster of Indigenous writers in fiction and non-fiction.
“We have all the superstars of Indigenous literature, coming together and discussing and exchanging ideas, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing,” he said. While Indigenous writers are the focus, “non-Indigenous people are also welcome. Anyone who cares about great literature and great writing should attend. It is truly a historic event.
He said Welch was probably the first native writer he had encountered. He came across “Winter in the Blood” late in high school or college, and “my universe expanded.” He said it sounds silly now, but until that point he “didn’t realize that a Native American could write about his own reservation and his own experiences.”
On first reading he found the book “disturbing and disturbing, but I have read it at least five or six more times over the years, and it is perhaps the book that has influenced me the most. than any other”.
Weiden, a registered citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation (Rosebud Sioux), grew up in a poor neighborhood in Denver and later moved to Aurora. There was no library nearby, so he regularly picked up titles from the passing bookmobile – he remembers reading James Bond novels at his father’s dry-cleaning business. Her mother grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and they visited her frequently.
His development as a writer happened at the same time as other careers. A first-generation college student, he earned a law degree and practiced for several years before deciding to pursue teaching. He went back to school and earned a doctorate. in political science from the University of Texas at Austin, with a focus on American politics and ethnic politics. After the birth of his children, the urge to write grew stronger, and he studied at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, then in the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. He is now full professor of Native American studies and political science at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
“I tried to bring a bit of all of my background – the culture of the Lakota people, the laws of the United States that clearly influenced and generally harmed Native Americans, and the laws…tribal laws and laws of the Le American government, again, has really influenced how criminal justice is pursued on reservations,” he said.
While studying for his MFA, a mentor who was a crime writer pointed him towards this canon.
“I found that these novels were quite equal to what would be called the classics of literary fiction, if not superior, for they also had wonderful plots, and so I changed my thesis to a study depth of the crime novel genre,” he said.
Billed as a “literary thriller”, it clearly reflects his deep love of the genre as well as his previous readings. “A crime is at the heart of the book, but I use the techniques of literary fiction,” he said.
Wounded Horse appeared as a character in a short story in 2012 while studying for his MFA. While Weiden killed it off at the end in classic noir fashion, Wounded Horse was “so convincing that it pops into my head from time to time”.
In 2017, when it came time to try his hand at a novel, he revived it and began expanding the story to include the many different characters, subplots, and threads.
One character, a California native chief, introduces traditional foods (in a modern style) to the reservation, and is welcomed by some but met with skepticism by others.
“There is a new movement beginning to emerge, the Indigenous Food Sovereignty movement that argues that Indigenous people should eat like we do, like our ancestors did thousands of years ago, that’s i.e. avoid sugar, avoid wheat, avoid pork and beef. And I really respect this movement,” he said.
He added that the issue is also complex, because “a family living on the reservation, that is, with a low income, will probably not be able to afford one of these dishes. They are just trying to feed their family. And so I wanted to address that question without necessarily drawing a conclusion because I think it’s a complicated question,” he said.
Exit and reception
The novel was released in 2020, which presented some hurdles. All of his book events have been canceled, for example. Despite these obstacles, it became a best-seller and began reaping awards.
It was nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, one of the genre’s highest honors. He is only the second Aboriginal writer to do so. He is also the first Indigenous writer to win an Anthony Award and the Thriller Award, according to his website.
From his academic work, he was already familiar with the Major Crimes Act, a major feature of the conspiracy. The act gives the federal government exclusive authority to investigate certain criminal crimes on reserves.
“I have received emails from several members of Congress, who said they were unaware of the Major Crimes Act and how criminal justice is done on Native American reservations. . And maybe they wanted to make some changes to the laws. I had a US attorney contact me, confirm that I understood everything,” he said, among some examples of comments that ‘he received on the book’s legal issues.
The Welch Festival is not his first trip to Montana. He came to Billings after the novel won Best Aboriginal Writer at the High Plains Book Award. Last month he visited Great Falls for another honor. A short story, “Skin,” featuring Wounded Horse, won the 2022 Spur Award in the short story category from Western Writers of America.
The tale was published in “Midnight Hour: A Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction from 20 Authors of Color” by Crooked Lane Books. Wounded Horse is “charged with stealing a book from a seminary that is tied into the skin of a murdered native,” he said. The plot is taken from reality: a book that took place at the Iliff Theological School of Theology in Denver.
He’s already writing the “Winter Counts” sequel, which will include Wounded Horse and other characters. Entitled “Wisdom Corner”, it will introduce new characters and facets of life.
A new character is a smuggler who brings beer and liquor across state lines to the reservation and sells them for a markup, he said. This character, however, is an “ethical bootlegger”, who doesn’t “cheat people”.
“I have a lot of fun with it,” he said. “And I can tell you, if you like ‘Winter Counts,’ I hope people like ‘Wisdom Corner,’ because it moves Virgil into new territory, but he’s back on the reserve. And lots of new themes, as well. that some of the same locale is present.”