Thursday, October 8, 2020

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, is author of the novel Winter Counts. Winter Counts is a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and has been selected as an Amazon Best Book of August, Best of the Month by Apple Books, a September main selection of the Book of the Month Club, and was an Indie Next Great Reads pick for September.

My Q&A with Weiden:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title of the book, Winter Counts, refers to the calendar system traditionally used by the Lakota people prior to European colonization. Rather than numerals, little pictographs were used to depict the most significant events of the year. And of course, the phrase “winter counts” also refers to the fact that winter is traditionally a difficult season for indigenous people, and most of the action in the book takes place in the winter.

So, I think the title works on several different levels to take readers into the book. There was a request by my press to consider changing the title, but I felt strongly that it should not be changed for a number of reasons. Happily, they worked with me, and everyone seems to like it.

What’s in a name?

I love this question! I use character names to give some hint as to the character’s personality and nature. “Virgil Wounded Horse,” naturally, gives a sense that this character is injured in some fundamental way. Another example would be the villain, Rick Crow. I thought that name implied some malevolence, not to mention that the Crow people were traditionally enemies of the Lakota nations. Finally, Chef Lack Strongbow was named to indicate his (perhaps overweening) self-confidence in his ideas regarding indigenous cuisine.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I really struggled to find the right ending to the novel, and I changed it several times. I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t read the book, but I believe it ends on the correct note.

The beginning of the novel depicts my protagonist, Virgil Wounded Horse, engaged in fight with a child molester on the reservation. Virgil is a hired vigilante, but he took that job for free. Although it’s a fairly brutal beginning, I thought it was important to show Virgil’s sense of ethics as well as his status as an iyeska, which is a Lakota slur for half-breed. I think the beginning of the book also realistically depicts life on the Rosebud reservation, and I felt it was important to set up the novel in this way.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Yes, I am an iyeska just like Virgil Wounded Horse, and I tapped into my own memories of growing up in two different worlds. But I think that the fear of not fitting in is universal, and I’ve heard from readers that they identify with Virgil’s struggles, even though they are not Native themselves. I also used my own experiences of being the father of two teenage boys in writing the book. Virgil is the guardian of fourteen-year-old Nathan, and I definitely related to that, and used my own hopes and fears as a parent while writing those scenes.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

In my day job, I’m a professor of Native American studies and political science, and there were a number of political issues that influenced the writing of the novel. Specifically, I wanted to write about the broken criminal justice system on Native reservations. Because of an 1885 federal law known as the Major Crimes Act, Native nations can’t prosecute felony crimes that occur on their own lands. Instead, they must refer these cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. However, the feds are declining to prosecute a large percentage of these cases, which means that the offender is set free. So, the victims in these cases often go outside of the law and pay a hired enforcer—like my protagonist Virgil--to go after the person who committed the crime. I’m hoping the book stimulates a discussion of the Major Crimes Act and whether the enforcement of felony crimes should be returned to Native nations. Readers who would like to learn more about this issue should check out the op-ed I published in the New York Times on July 19, 2020.
Visit David Heska Wanbli Weiden's website.

The Page 69 Test: Winter Counts.

My Book, The Movie: Winter Counts.

--Marshal Zeringue