Inside a Broken System

With his debut thriller, alumnus David Weiden sheds light on Native criminal justice

Photo by Aslan Chalom

As David Heska Wanbli Weiden began working on the story line for his highly acclaimed debut novel, “Winter Counts,” he first needed to bring the main character, Virgil Wounded Horse, back to life. 

In this Native thriller, Virgil Wounded Horse is a local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was also the main character in a short story Weiden had written in 2011, also titled “Winter Counts,” in which the protagonist died. But Virgil Wounded Horse stuck with Weiden, and he knew he wasn’t finished with him yet. 

“I just slowly let it marinate in my head, and about 2017, I started writing [the novel],” Weiden says.

Winter Counts(Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020) tells the story of Wounded Horse’s obsession with finding and stopping the dealer who is bringing dangerous drugs into his community. It’s an examination of the broken criminal justice system on reservations, Weiden says.

“There is a law called the Major Crimes Act, which was passed by the U.S. government in 1885, which forbids Native nations from prosecuting felonies that occur on their own lands,” says Weiden (JD ’92). “Instead, they must refer all felony crimes to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

The problem, according to Weiden, is that the federal government declines to prosecute about 30% of all felony crimes, so too many offenders go free.

“This is when a hired enforcer, or vigilante, comes into play,” he says. For instance, “If you have a child that’s been injured by someone, and the feds won’t do anything, you might very well call up somebody like Virgil Wounded Horse and say, ‘Go take care of him, for a price.’

“And, yes, they do really exist on many reservations,” adds Weiden, who was raised in Denver, but who also spent time growing up on the Rosebud Reservation as a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

Weiden’s interest in the criminal justice system has illuminated his academic path. He began his legal studies at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, but after one year, and missing Denver terribly, he transferred to the Sturm College of Law. There, he enjoyed courses on criminal procedure and learning about famous criminal trials. These inspired him to dig deeper into criminal justice issues for Natives and non-Natives alike.

Weiden had been practicing law in Denver for several years when he decided to pursue a doctoral degree in political science/government (with a subspecialty in racial and ethnic politics) from the University of Texas at Austin. Upon completing his doctoral studies, he returned to Colorado and to DU, where he was a full-time lecturer from 1999–2001.

Following his stint at DU, Weiden taught at the United States Naval Academy and Hofstra University, among other schools, but Denver still pulled at his heartstrings. In 2013, he accepted a job as a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where today he teaches courses on law, American politics and Native American studies. 

Although he’s been teaching about it for years, Weiden admits that most people don’t know about the broken criminal justice system on reservations. With remedying that in mind, he decided to marry his academic interests with his interest in literature (he has an MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts), and thus “Winter Counts” was born.

The debut novel has received rave reviews. One reviewer deemed Weiden “a major new voice in crime fiction, indigenous fiction and American literature.” And no less an authority than DU alumnus and bestselling crime writer C.J. Box was equally enthusiastic, calling the book “a knowing, authentic, closely observed novel about modern-day Lakotas that rings absolutely true.”

The book also was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Amazon and NPR, among others. More recently, it was nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

“The Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America is the highest honor that crime writers have. It’s the equivalent in our world of the Oscars,” Weiden says. The award ceremony, normally a black-tie affair, will be held virtually on April 29.

“I’m told that I’m the second Native American person ever to be nominated for an Edgar. No Native has ever won it, although I should say that the wonderful crime writer Martin Cruz Smith received the Grand Master award.

“It’s a cliché, but I am just honored to be nominated,” he adds.

In addition to his success with “Winter Counts,” Weiden received the 2020 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for his children’s book, “Spotted Tail(Reycraft, 2019)

“I have two children, and when they were young, I didn’t have any kids’ books that dealt with the famous Native people from my nation, and our most famous leader is Chief Spotted Tail,” Weiden explains. He’d been mulling this idea for a long time, so when Reycraft issued a call for children’s books representing voices that traditionally have been marginalized, Weiden was all in. 

“I wrote the text, but I’m proud to say that Reycraft brought in a Native artist, and the artwork is absolutely spectacular in the book,” he says.

Weiden is now under contract with Harper Collins to write a sequel to “Winter Counts,” tentatively titled “Wounded Horse,” proving that Weiden’s instincts were right: He’s not finished with his intriguing protagonist quite yet. 

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