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Winter Counts

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A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

325 pages, Hardcover

First published August 25, 2020

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About the author

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

6 books685 followers
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, is the author of the novel Winter Counts (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020), nominated for the Edgar Award and winner of the Anthony, Thriller, Barry, Macavity, Lefty, Spur, High Plains, and Tillie Olsen Awards. The book was a New York Times Editors' Choice and Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2020. He also wrote the children’s book Spotted Tail (Reycraft, 2019), winner of the 2020 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. He’s the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, a Ragdale Foundation residency, the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship, and was a Tin House Scholar. He received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and is professor of Native American studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,041 reviews
Profile Image for Chelsea Humphrey.
1,481 reviews79k followers
September 19, 2022
"Winter counts were the calendar system used by the Lakota, but they weren't like modern ones. I'd loved the little pictures in the calendars, each image showing the most significant event from the past year.

If you are a lover of slow burning, character driven crime fiction, please halt your scroll and immediately add Winter Counts to your 2020 TBR. I know that time and money are limited resources for many readers these days, but I highly recommend planning ahead and making this book a priority if it is within your realm of reading preferences. As a privileged white woman, I'm always actively seeking out books beyond my personal scope of experience, and it's surprisingly hard to find Indigenous crime fiction written by Indigenous authors! This debut blew my expectations out of the water, and managed to provide an educational experience to readers unfamiliar with Indigenous, and more specifically Lakota, ways, while also throwing out a gripping, heart-pounding plot.

"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."

Winter Counts introduces us to Virgil Wounded Horse, a bit of a pariah within the perimeters of his reservation, but also a man with skills that the other residents find necessary. Virgil is the person you call when the American government has failed you; when the FBI chooses not to prosecute those committing rape, abuse, theft, and murder on Indigenous land, you hire Virgil as muscle to deliver the justice you are owed. When word spreads that someone has been selling heroin on the reservation and local teenagers are overdosing, one of the council members hires Virgil to take care of the problem. Teaming up with his ex-girlfriend, Virgil decides to take on the case when the epidemic hits too close to home.

While the mystery behind the drug problem is certainly engaging and entertaining, I found the real beauty of this story is the deep look we get into Virgil and his demons. As a biracial man, he isn't fully accepted into his community, but also isn't awarded the privilege associated with the half of him that is white either. This struggle of finding belonging in a world that had been stacked against him is peppered throughout the criminal investigation, but these personal touches are clearly what makes the story shine bright amongst a sea of mundane mysteries. There are even prejudices within the reservation, classism and elitism and privilege based on your family, and Virgil also deals with past loss, a faith that has failed him, and religion tied into cultural practice and beliefs.

I don't want to give anything away, but the way that this story wrapped up was beautiful and tinged with just the right amount of bittersweet sadness. As I am unsure if this is truly a standalone, or the beginning of a new series, I will say that I would follow Virgil on future adventures if the author so chose to create them. Highly, highly recommended!

*Many thanks to the publisher for providing my review copy.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,710 reviews25k followers
September 23, 2021
This extraordinary award winning multilayered crime debut from David Heska Wanbli Weiden is set primarily in South Dakota on the Rosebud Lakota Native American Reservation. What makes this character driven piece of crime fiction stand out is its insightful portrayal of the indigenous community, its culture, rituals, ceremonies, and more heartbreakingly its tragic history. A horrifying history that speaks of stolen land, broken promises, brutality and violence, racism and marginalisation and the harsh, grim realities of the present, of bone deep poverty, deplorable rates of unemployment, a failing educational and justice system, broken families, alcoholism, and the creeping growth of heroin addiction on the reservation.

Of mixed heritage, Virgil Wounded Horse has a personal history of being rejected by many in the indigenous community, with its culture and belief system that left him disillusioned when he lost his father, then the loss of his mother and his beloved sister, Sybil, who died in an accident, leaving him the guardian of his 14 year old nephew, Nathan. Caring for Nathan pushes him to beat the lure of the demon drink and alcoholism, with Virgil putting the money saved into Nathan's college education fund. Virgil survives by serving as the community enforcer, ensuring there is some justice for those denied it by the lack of criminal prosecutions on the reservation. When Virgil is offered a lucrative pay day for taking care of Rick Crow, suspected of facilitating the drugs trade, he takes a cautious approach, until Nathan OD's on heroin.

Virgil goes to Denver with his ex-girlfriend, Marie Short Bear, in search of Crow, only to find danger at every turn, and when his nephew is arrested, he is willing to do whatever it takes to protect him. This is a story of heartbreak, despair, identity and hope, of corruption, betrayal, and privilege, where there are those in the community who will cross any line to ensure their family and children escape 'the rez'. Virgil finds himself in a nightmare of a predicament, a predicament that will test both him and Nathan, yet one which opens the way towards finding their way back towards regaining faith in the Lakota life, community and culture. This is a riveting crime read, tense and suspenseful, whilst providing a rare and invaluable glimpse into what is otherwise an 'invisible' Native American community, the pressures it faces, and the ever present repercussions of a history that can never be forgotten. Highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC.
Profile Image for mina reads™️.
544 reviews7,021 followers
January 17, 2023
I never expected that I would love a thriller so much 🤧

This story is about Virgil, a Lakota man and vigilante living on a reservation in South Dakota as he begins a dangerous mission to track down a recent heroin influx in the community. There’s so much social commentary here about how the American legal system robs Indigenous people of a chance at justice in so many ways. This book was brilliant in my opinion, fast paced, poignant, full of enough intrigue to keep me flipping the pages. I felt really emotionally connected to our protagonist, Virgil. I’m usually not interested in the lone wolf, tough guy characters, but Virgil was really a man of the community under all his bluster and seeing his connections with everyone on the reservation and his determination to find out who is bringing these devastating drugs to the community was so compelling. Also Virgil’s dedication to his nephew made me emotional 🥺🥺 I can’t recommend this crime thriller enough!

Gonna list the trigger warnings now ⬇️⬇️⬇️

Trigger warnings: mentions of rape and pedophilia(most heavily in the first chapter), assault, murder, drug abuse, child death
Profile Image for Gabby.
1,302 reviews28k followers
November 9, 2020
3.5 stars
I enjoyed this one! Here are some notes I jotted down while reading:

-There is some great social commentary in this book about what it’s like to live on an Indian reservation, and I feel like I learned so much, especially with the authors note at the end. It’s tragic that most times federal authorities refuse to prosecute murders, assaults, and sex crimes: over 35% of crimes are declined and over a quarter of those cases are sexual assaults against women and children
-Very eye opening, reminded me of the movie Wind River in that way
-I don’t typically read stories that revolve heavily around drugs, so this was a bit out of my comfort zone because of that
-This is categorized as a mystery/thriller, but I wouldn’t really consider this a mystery at all because I feel like it’s pretty predictable, but it definitely is a thriller because it’s action packed from beginning to end
-Interesting characters who I really cared for and the pacing of this book was great, there was never a dull moment
Profile Image for Fran.
661 reviews632 followers
July 30, 2020
Lakota winter counts are documents of recorded history. "Usually drawn on buffalo skins or deer hide, Lakota winter counts are comprised of pictographs organized in spiral or horizontal rows...Waniyeti is the Lakota word for year, which is measured from first snow to first snow".
-Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center

"By federal law, tribal police couldn't prosecute any federal crimes that happened on the rez. A murder on the rez in 1880's...the killer was banished, but not jailed...upset by the Native way of justice...a law [was passed] taking away our right to punish our own people". On Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, Virgil Wounded Horse is a vigilante for hire, an enforcer. In Virgil's words, "I'd been hired to beat the hell out of Guv Yellowback [gym teacher] by the father of the little girl at the school. He had raped her. The school had refused to take any action. Tribal police couldn't do anything."

Virgil Wounded Horse, half-Lakota, was adrift, caught between two cultures. "I didn't feel any mystical bond with the rez...unpaved roads and our falling-down houses...good kids, decent kids-got involved with drugs and crime...there was nothing for them to do here...why not leave...get a job and make a clean break...putting aside Native ways and assimilating...the sound of the drummers at a powwow, the smell of wild sage...could I ever really leave the reservation?...".

Virgil was a reformed alcoholic. He lived with his fourteen year old nephew, Nathan. Nathan's mother had died in a car accident. "I'd quit drinking for good. The money I saved would pay for Nathan's college". Like most teenagers, Nathan had become secretive, more distant...tragedy strikes...Nathan overdoses on heroin, a free "hit" made available to him.

Virgil's ex-girlfriend, Marie, was the daughter of Ben Short Bear, a candidate for Tribal President. Marie's parents were upwardly mobile, sought prestige. Marie was expected to reach for the stars, become a doctor...her parent's dream. She'd attended tribal college studying Lakota language and culture. She currently worked for the commodity food program. Marie was learning how to prepare indigenous, healthy cuisine.

A sweep of Nathan's school locker...an arrest...possible long term jail sentence. Ben Short Bear wanted Virgil to "take out" those instrumental in bringing heroin to the reservation. He offers Virgil a substantial payday for "setting Rick Crow straight". Removing drugs has now become personal for Virgil, with Nathan's life in the balance. Marie insists on working with him and has ideas of her own where to find and how to handle Rick and other suppliers.

"Winter Counts" by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a character driven crime thriller, a debut by Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota nation. This fast-paced, gritty tome involves the collaboration of the FBI, the Tribal police and Virgil, who is determined to clear Nathan of wrongdoing. Support from Marie Short Bear and many secondary players was invaluable. These players were well characterized.

Virgil felt that Native traditions-the ceremonies, prayers, teaching- were empty rituals... but"...one day, the words my mother used to say finally came to me...Wakan Tanka nici un. May the Creator guide you".

This reader anxiously awaits the next offering in the series with Virgil Wounded Horse. Highly recommended!

Thank you HarperCollins Publishers and Net Galley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Elle.
587 reviews1,402 followers
September 28, 2020
A fast-paced crime thriller that has just as much grit as it does heart, Winter Counts had me flying through the pages up to the end. I’m very impressed by this debut by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

Left with little recourse against injustice on their reservation, Virgil Wounded Horse is the man you call when seeking retribution. Wounded Horse is a Lakota man living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota along with his teenaged nephew, Nathan. Virgil is a hired enforcer, a vigilante judge and jury that hands down sentences with his fists as opposed to throwing offenders behind bars. It’s a difficult way to make a living, so when the leader of his local tribal council makes him an offer to track down the lowlifes smuggling drugs onto their reservation, he’s not in much of a position to turn him down.

I’m not usually one for a tough-guy main character that plays by his own rules, but for the most part I really liked Virgil. He reminded me of Bug Montage of Blacktop Wasteland in that way. He equally loves and is wary of his community, understanding what they’re up against but also knowing what they’re capable of. The members of his tribe view him in much the same way, with barely veiled contempt until they are in need of his services.

Winter Counts cracks a window for non-Indigenous readers to see into a small sliver of what life on a reservation is like. You witness both things specific to this reservation and the Lakota people, as well as in a general sense for most ‘Native Americans’. The legal limbo was one aspect that is crucial to the story but probably will surprise most readers. Crimes committed on reservations are typically not prosecuted, by tribal police or federal agents. Reservations are also often the last to get resources, if they make it there at all, and then the residents are criticized for not ‘bootstrapping’ their way out of poverty. It’s a cycle the U.S. government seems unwilling and uninterested in addressing meaningfully.

“Sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good—it changes a little over the years, but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.”

I won’t say too much more about the plot, but I really loved this book. I guessed a few of the big twists, but still had a good time as I sped towards the conclusion. I imagine this author is going to have a long and successful writing career in the future. Thanks to @thor.wants.another.letter & @erins_library for selecting this book as the September MBC pick and to @jordys.book.club & @bostonbookfanatic for hosting!

*Also thank you to Ecco Books for an advance copy!
Profile Image for Julie .
4,078 reviews59k followers
April 3, 2022
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a 2020 Ecco publication.

Criminal cases on the Lakota Rosebud reservation in South Dakota are usually handled by the Tribal Council, but more serious ones are handed over to the American feds.

The feds, in turn, rarely opt to pursue the cases presented them, unless they think it might be high profile. This opens the door to vigilantism and that’s the job Virgil Wounded Knee performs- as an 'enforcer', doling out his own brand of justice.

When approached to investigate the flow of heroin onto the reservation, Virgil is not inclined to pursue it, but when his own nephew, Nathan, OD’s, he starts paying attention.

Heading to Denver with his former girlfriend, Marie, the pair search for Rick Crow, the man they believe has connections to a drug cartel and is behind the infiltration of drugs onto the Rosebud reservation.

Their investigation leads them into unexpected places as Virgil, who is of mixed heritage, must learn to rely on the native beliefs he has long ago dismissed…

Meanwhile, Nathan’s problems multiply when a stash of drugs is found in his school locker. This places more pressure on Virgil to get to the bottom of things before Nathan winds up behind bars…

This is another book that has been on my list for a while. I knew it would be a good book, and sure enough, this novel turned out to be a multi-layered crime story that tackles a multitude of cultural issues, while drawing the reader into Virgil’s internal struggle, as he wrestles with his own demons.

Although there are a few issues with the writing, for a debut novel, and an award winning one, at that, the story has a great deal of depth, and is one I’d recommend, and not just to those who enjoy crime fiction.

It’s an eye-opening inside look at life on a Lakota reservation and the challenges of indigenous people, as well as an absorbing character study, which will appeal to a broader audience as well.

4 stars
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews657 followers
March 10, 2021
Sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good — it changes a little over the years, but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.
On one level, Winter Counts will feel very familiar. A local tough guy who operates outside the law is tasked with solving a crime, but soon realizes that the problem goes much deeper than he was first led to believe. There’s an ex-girlfriend and an innocent kid, and the story is set in a struggling small town where everyone knows everyone else and it’s hard to break from one’s past. If you read crime fiction with amateur detectives, you’ll have read a book with a similar plot before.

But the setting here—among the Lakota tribe on the Rosebud Indian Reservation—gives the story a very fresh feel. The enforcer, Virgil Wounded Horse, is a well-developed, nuanced character. He’s a part of his community yet conflicted about it, disillusioned with his tribe’s traditions after his father’s death years ago. The drug trade he’s asked to stop is hardly unique to reservations, but the story makes clear how drugs and especially crime affects these communities uniquely, in large measure due to the federal involvement (read: interference) in criminal prosecutions there. The portrayal of ‘life on the rez’ is gritty and real, yet the book also makes clear why many Native Americans prefer it to one among those who have stolen from, broken promises to, and generally mistreated them literally for centuries.
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.
Winter Counts is a satisfying read regardless of which piece of the story attracted you first. It’s a solid, well-written crime novel, as well as an interesting look at a culture rarely depicted by the American media in any kind of nuanced way. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kristin.
248 reviews4 followers
September 26, 2020
The novel has three strengths imo—and they are formidable, but not enough to redeem the story as a whole. The first is in the world it describes, the day to day life and details about a specific Lakota reservation in South Dakota. This world is rendered with clear love and understanding. The second strength is the pains it takes in describing the religious practices and spiritual beliefs of this specific native nation. There is so much love and honor here and these details make the story sing. And finally the last strength is the author’s willingness to look at the generational and individual scars of systemic and personal violence—violence of the colonizers (my forebears) against the native peoples, of the adults to the children, the men to the women, the men to themselves. It does not flinch is describing the psychological and physical cost of that pain—and of the loss of family, of society, of belief. Again, these three things rang true, and if this were a story of grieving, it might be enough.

But it is not enough.

This was...not a good book. The writing is stilted, the dialogue ham-fisted, the plot plodding. I anticipated every beat that the “mystery” hit—a crime *thriller* this is not. The characters all seem to exist to revolve around our protagonist and to help him or to motivate him along his particular journey from unremitting closed-down toxic masculinity survival to... less closed down violent dude. This one dimensionality is doubly-true of his love interest. It’s like her own life was on hold until the story was ready to throw her back in with the protagonist, and then we immediately move away from a big life goal she is on the verge of achieving so that she can... oh, never mind. Cishet people, what are ya gonna do? The plot and the characters made me flinch. The world he describes—materially and spiritually—deserves better.

Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,975 reviews1,986 followers
July 24, 2023
Real Rating: 4.75* of five

WINNER OF THE BEST FIRST NOVEL ANTHONY AWARD FOR 2021! Virtual Bouchercon award ceremonies linked to at the above.

WINNER OF THE BEST INDIGENOUS WRITER at the 2021 High Plains Book Awards.

On The Guardian’s Best Thrillers of 2021 list

Review to come on Wednesday.
Real Rating: 4.75* of five


My Review
: This is a Brulé Lakota Winter Count:

This cultural tradition, extremely briefly summarized in a Wikipedia article, organizes this novel’s ideas. Virgil Wounded Horse, our aptly and prophetically named vigilante-cum-enforcer hero in this thriller, touches on this fascinating piece of (half) his ancestry’s sense of time and place often enough to make the title of the book emerge organically in the reader’s mind. Virgil muses at one point, “Winter counts were the calendar system used by the Lakota, but they weren't like modern ones. I'd loved the little pictures in the calendars, each image showing the most significant event from the past year.” He muses again, at a later point, “Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.” I think both are ideas of how he, his world, and his sense of self, are in motion at all times. It makes his entire life spent in action make sense…he’s not a Lakota insider, like ex-girlfriend Marie Short Bear, whose ancestry is flawlessly pureblood and perfectly in tune with the power structure within the Rosebud Reservation. He’s not an insider in the white world, either, being a mixed-race outcast from its racist system. It’s been a blessing in that any curse can be turned into an advantage if you’re looking for a way to do it. He’s got a place enforcing justice outside white and Native American legal systems, as required.

What this means is that the character is perfect for a thriller that needs telling to get people to care about the problems heaped on Outsiders, Othered people, by all systems of government. The tribal justice system (arguably distorted by its necessary accommodation to white codes) as much as any other. Virgil is outside, and that is the perfect place to be when the upper echelon needs something done that won’t “look good.” The value of face, of taking things at face value, is something white people with our media obsession have raised to virtual apotheosis; it’s far from untrue of other cultures, however. Marie Little Bear’s tribal leadership position means he can’t directly do the effective thing against the drug cartels hooking Native kids on heroin, with the well-known tragic consequences.

Had the plague not touched Virgil’s nephew, hard, he wouldn’t have agreed to take on the violent and greedy and frankly evil people. But when it’s family, things look different, don’t they. What happens on the reservation has its roots in the not-distant city of Denver. Marie and Virgil set out to confront the ills of their corner of the world by going outside that corner, by bearding the lion in his den, and they are not surprisingly at some disadvantages there. It is as revealing to consider their troubles and issues within the white world of Denver as to examine the world of the reservation in promotion, tolerance, and perpetuation of toxic social maladjustment.

I’m impressed by the way this thriller uses its author’s straddled worlds…he’s Lakota and teaches Native American Studies at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, so clearly he’s quite adept at code-switching…as a full and integrated world for Virgil Wounded Horse. We’re not expected to see Virgil as a man out of place in two worlds, we’re expected to see a man discovering his place in his own world. It is a fine distinction, but an important one. Virgil is an outsider in each of those large, obvious social constructs. He is making his own world, one in which he is the norm, as in the end that is what we all must do to “fit in.” Where the world doesn’t have a place for you, make one.

That is the gift of this read to the reader. Join Virgil Wounded Horse in his thrilling world.

This post is the 1,000th on my blog! I’ve written many thousands of book reviews over the years of many truly enjoyable books. I’m very happy that, after eight and a half years, I’ve reached this milestone blog post with a review of a book I’m happy to recommend that you read as a Booksgiving treat to yourself.
Profile Image for Linda.
1,287 reviews1,328 followers
August 13, 2020
"Become the spark that lights the fire and then burn, burn with intensity and purpose because only as ashes shall you rise." (Bernice Angoh Lakota)

Winter Counts encompasses those embers that smolder from within. The flame reflects the initiative of the individual as well as the depth and the forcefulness exhibited by the very people themselves. Dare we even imagine the generations upon generations of the Sicangu Lakota who came before these times. Dare we to even know the inner thoughts and the life experiences of a Great People who respectfully treasure the Lakota ways.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden creates a multi-faceted view into a deeply drawn existence familiar to those who live on Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He sets the parallels of ancient honored times of the past with the harsh realities of present life encountered day-by-day on the reservation. But it is through the hard-hitting inner dialogue of these characters that we get a glimpse into lifestyles so unfamiliar to us......to unspeakable injustices that have become a way of life for others.

Virgil Wounded Horse has become a boiling cauldron of emotions that overflow and seem to suffocate his soul. He lost his parents some time back and he and his sister, Sybil, created a calendar system of symbols depicting their inner feelings. Virgil would visit that tender place within, once again, when his sister dies in an auto accident. He takes it upon himself to raise his young orphaned fourteen year old nephew, Nathan. With highly charged resentment, Virgil tries to extinguish the Lakota ways. His emptiness seems to limit himself when it comes to Nathan. But he does love the boy and still feels that bond with his sister.

Virgil is a master at carrying out the revenge of others. It is noted that the tribal police are limited in their capacity and can't prosecute felony crimes on the reservation. The legal system is almost non-existent and the Feds rarely make an appearance. Rape and murder occur often. Virgil's pent-up emotions serve him well as he is hired to carry out secret payback for those crimes.

Serious drugs have made their way onto the reservation with black tar heroin and opiods. Virgil is hired by a tribal councilman to trace their source. His investigation takes him to Denver and to a world more dangerous than he ever imagined. That danger will seep into the crevices aligning Virgil's own life.

Winter Counts has depth and breadth and burns slowly as we enter into these lives. Know that going in. It is an intense character study that reveals the inner workings of those existing in a way of life that leads to honor at its highest point and frustration at its lowest point. Thanks to David Heska Wanbli Weiden we hear the powerful winds across the fields and the echoing of the voices of those who need to be heard.

I received a copy of Winter Counts through NetGalley for an honest review. My thanks to Harper Collins Publishers and to the talented David Heska Wanbli Weiden for the opportunity.
Profile Image for Michelle.
637 reviews503 followers
August 24, 2020
Wow, wow, wow. This was an excellent debut!

From reading the summary of this book and previously reading There There, I thought I had an idea of what would be in these pages. I was wrong. No matter who the writer or population discussed is, the very bleak, but important issues in these pages of drug abuse and economic poverty was something that I previously would have moved away from reading about. As I grow and mature as a reader, I am trying really hard to diversify what I read and and also support #ownvoices authors. So, it was with a little trepidation that I started this on Saturday morning.

Thankfully, the little voice that told me to read this was rewarded. The pages went by so fast that I finished it by Sunday night. This is crime fiction at its best and it should appeal to all different types of mystery/crime/thriller fans. There were no superfluous story lines mixed in, there was no agenda - this was just a great piece of writing. The author masterfully crafted this story and gave the characters life. You knew the what and why behind everything that made each person apart of this story. You rooted for all of them. The author accomplished everything he set out to do in his author's note. He educated on Indigenous Peoples (particularly the Lakota tribe), he told a heartbreaking story, but he also told a story of resilience and strength through the odds.

I can't quite articulate how much I urge you to read this. Besides it being a really great book, it is a breakout in crime fiction, which desperately needs more diversity in its ranks. My hope is that this will become a series.

Thanks so much to Ecco Books and David Heska Wanbli Weiden for the print copy to read and provide an honest review.

Review Date: 08/24/2020
Publication Date: 08/25/2020
Profile Image for Liz.
2,143 reviews2,760 followers
October 4, 2020
Five big stars!
This is a great character driven story of a Native American fixer’s search to find the source of heroin being brought onto his reservation. Virgil Wounded Horse lives on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. He’s a recovered alcoholic, a half breed and more outcast than accepted.
Due to the way the laws work, it’s sometimes hard to find justice on the rez. Virgil is a means to get that justice. When his nephew almost overdosed on heroin, Virgil agreed to accept an assignment to track down the source.
Weiden’s writing reminds me of Attica Locke. Different minorities, but many of the same issues, a lot of which is down to systemic racism. The story is dark, depressing more often than not. Weiden does a great job of giving us history mixed in with the present day. I love the interplay between Marie and Virgil when it comes to the beliefs in the Lakota ways. This is described as a mystery, but it’s so much more than that.
It’s got a great ending, one that is gripping and had me glued to my seat.
I really appreciated the Author’s Note explaining what parts of the book were based in real life.
Darrell Dennis is a fabulous narrator and I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job with this book.
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 6 books59.7k followers
October 7, 2020
I thoroughly enjoyed this new crime novel set on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Sicangu Lakota nation. (Weiden is a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.)

Virgil Wounded Horse is a Native American vigilante for hire: when people can't get justice through the reservation's official channels they turn to him to enact their own. This happens with depressing regularity because of the 1885 Major Crimes Act: certain felonies can only be prosecuted by the federal government, but at their discretion—and they typically decline to prosecute any case that doesn't include murder. Weiden says in his Author's Note—which you absolutely must read—that this circumstance is factual and all-too-real.

When Virgil's nephew gets entrapped in a fake drug bust, authorities more or less force the young teen to take a dangerous undercover assignment so they can nail the men who are trafficking heroin on the reservation. While the story is solid, this book shines for its setting, and its powerful exploration of identity.

Though this reads as a standalone, Weiden left the door wide open for a sequel; I'm certainly interested in reading more.

Though the story is rarely graphic in portraying violence, the novel does begin with Virgil knocking out a child molester's teeth in a parking lot, please be mindful of the associated content.
Profile Image for Dani.
51 reviews467 followers
April 12, 2020
I don’t read much crime fiction (hint: it’s closer to none.) There’s no particular reason other than it just has never been a drama I turn to and I think I know why: there is not a lot of Indigenous authored crime fiction. I’ve discovered I will read ANY genre as long as it’s written by a Native author.

The Goodreads Top 50 Native American mystery novels list only contains one Indigenous author. Tony Hillerman is a popular crime fiction novelist whose novels often pop up on such lists, he has been quoted as saying. “ “I know a hell of a lot more about the Navajo culture than most Navajos do. They’re like the average Kiwanian, the average guy you’d run into on the street. Ask him about his religion and he’ll refer you to a preacher. Most Navajos are the same way.”

Then in walks Winter Counts by Sicangu Lakota author David Heska Wanbli Weiden and saves my day.

I loved everything about this novel. The setting, the characters, the Lakota culture, the storyline, all of it worked for me and I could absolutely not stop reaching for this book.
Not only did I find it entertaining, humorous, endearing and well written- I found it touched on many important issues that affect Indigenous people trying to decolonize while living in a colonized society that was built upon systemic racism on stolen Native land.

Novels like this are important to me. Not only are they entertaining readers while providing invaluable insights into the issues Indigenous people face, they are also establishing space for Indigenous authors in a genre where there are far too many white voices where they do not belong.

Winter Counts is available for purchase on August 25, 2020. I strongly recommend you set a reminder for this one. Read it. Support Native authors. Miigwech
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,395 reviews804 followers
September 3, 2020
“Winter Counts” by author David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a special thriller suspense novel because it takes place on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation and it involves the Lakota Sioux Indian culture. The mystery/thriller is almost secondary; the beauty and novelty of the story is the cultural information gained.

David Heska Wanbili Weiden is a registered member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. In addition, has a JD degree including a legal career. His background provides authenticity to his thriller. He includes legal information the law enforcement on the reservation, along with different Native spiritual ceremonies and attitudes. I found reading about the culture to be superior to the thriller piece.

Saying that, it’s a decent thriller. Heroin makes its way onto the reservation, and a “hired thug” becomes involved. (The criminal justice system on the reservation leaves holes in prosecutions. As a result, it is accepted that vigilante methods can be employed for justice.). I guessed who the main double-crosser was, but that didn’t ruin my joy. I enjoyed how the complexities of the reservation laws and customs complicated police procedure. It picks up into a compulsive page-turner in the end.
Profile Image for Bookishrealm.
2,084 reviews5,051 followers
December 3, 2020
Trigger Warnings: Assault, rape, drug use, drug overdose, death of a child, alcoholism, violence

Whewww listen! This book was absolutely crazy in the last 10-15%. I actually didn't realize it was a thriller until I read a few reviews. Winter Counts is a fast-paced thriller that centers around the main character Virgil Wounded Horse. In the beginning of the novel (maybe the first 2 to 3 pages) readers learn that he serves as a vigilante on the reservation. What was so interesting about even the introduction of this novel, is that it is so woven in Native history and how colonization forever changed Native communities. These changes are still apparent today. I had no idea that the ability for Native communities to prosecute their own community members only extended to certain crimes before the federal government stepped in and of course the overt racism perpetuated by them is clearly evident in how cases are handled (or shall we say not handled).

The story doesn't necessarily focus in on that, but it plays an important part in the framework of the novel. When heroine makes an appearance on the reservation and directly impacts Virgil's family he is willing to partner with another community member to figure out where it's coming from. Weiden's greatest gift in constructing this novel definitely lies within his ability to make you feel a part of the story. This book went by quickly because I felt like I was a part of the story. I'm not exactly sure how to explain that feeling, but the balance between giving readers social commentary while also providing an engaging, fast-paced story was present for every page. I personally haven't read a lot of novels that revolve around the drug trade, but I found the usage in this novel to be intriguing.

I don't have many criticisms of this book. It was well done; however, I did see the ending coming, but not necessarily exactly who was going to be involved. It didn't necessarily detract from the overall story because it was so immersive and fast paced. Overall, I really did enjoy this book and I'm happy that I read it. There was a lot that I learned and took away from the book and I'm looking forward to seeing where David goes in the future.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,549 reviews604 followers
November 27, 2022
Winter Counts, set on the Rosebud Lakota Native American reservation, follows Virgil Wounded Horse's quest for justice (and revenge) as his home turf becomes flooded with heroin and opioids. But this is much more than a crime novel. Weiden weaves in the history of broken treaties and continued racism faced by Native Americans. And he builds believable, flawed characters that I came to care for. It is a rare treat to find a novel that touches on so many important issues in a propulsive, character-driven story. I was happy to hear that this is the first in a planned series!
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,049 followers
September 16, 2020
3 ½ stars

“Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.”

Winter Counts is a compelling debut novel. Although this book uses elements and tropes of the thriller genre, the narrative isn’t solely focused on its 'loner vigilante vs. bad guys' storyline (which is perhaps the novel’s weakest aspect). In fact, throughout the course of his narrative, David Heska Wanbli Weiden sheds light on America's past and present systemic oppression of Native people.
Usually, I'm more of a character over setting kind of reader but not with Winter Counts. Weiden renders Virgil's community, Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in a very evocative way. While Weiden doesn't shy away from delving into the everyday injustices and/or bleak circumstances of those who are living on the reservation (alcoholism, drugs, mental illnesses, poverty), he also shows how important, and ultimately life-affirming, traditional practices and beliefs are.

When we first meet Virgil he seems to be removed from his own culture. Many on the reservation have treated poorly for being a "half-breed" and the death of his closest relatives has left him alone. Or almost alone as after the death of his sister he has become the sole carer of his nephew, Nathan. When the local council and American's legal system let pedophiles and sex offenders go unpunished, Virgil is the one you hire.

“When the legal system broke down like this, people came to me. For a few hundred bucks they’d get some measure of revenge. My contribution to the justice system.”

His work as a vigilante has earned him a bit of a reputation and soured his relationship with his now ex, Marie. When Virgil receives an offer from Marie's father, a tribal councilman, he's hesitant to take the job. Someone is bringing heroin into their community and young people are overdosing. Virgil believes that this is one of the few cases that the feds will actually pursue (unlike the “sex assault cases, thefts, assault and battery” cases that the tribal court refers to them) so doesn't see the point in involving himself...that is until heroin finds Nathan.
Virgil is forced to collaborate with the same people who have time and again failed his people, and finds himself rekindling his relationship with Marie, who is eager to help her community.
The strongest moments in this novel are the ones that are less-action—or suspense—fuelled. Those scenes in which characters are talking about Lakota customs, beliefs, and language were the more poignant and interesting moments in the narrative. Marie was perhaps the most compelling character in the novel, as her desire to improve life on the rez actually begins to break through Virgil's more pessimistic worldview.
Part of me wishes that this book had not employed a first pov as Virgil's narration didn't really add any layers to his character (his conversations with others and actions give a clear impression of what kind of person he is). The first pov seemed kind of restrictive as in more than one occasion I found myself wanting to read from Nathan and Marie's perspectives (perhaps because I felt more connected to them than Virgil). Virgil's narration was also kind of repetitive. His inner monologue often consisted in repeating information that had been previously related through dialogue (Weiden, trust your readers!).
As I said, Weiden excels at setting. Even those scenes that take place outside the rez, were vividly depicted. Weiden takes a very straight-forward approach when discussing, depicting, or touching up on issues such as the racism and injustices, as well as the many legal and societal biases, Native people experience, the ramifications of colonialism, and generational trauma. Although there are some violent scenes at the beginning and in the final act of the novel, Weiden demonstrate extreme empathy when recounting the Wounded Knee Massacre.
I also appreciate that during the course of the story Virgil, Marie, and Nathan are struggling to do the 'right' thing. At times their efforts to do good are misunderstood or miss the mark. Marie in particular is placed in a particularly difficult position.
The characterisation of the main bad guy (whose identity won't be all that surprising to readers of thrillers) leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the side characters could have benefitted from some more 'page-time' but they nevertheless felt more dimensional than our 'villain'.

Overall, I think this was a very solid debut novel. While I wasn't all that taken by the thriller storyline (which was formulaic), I did find Weiden's portrayal of Virgil's community, as well as his relationship with Nathan and Marie, to be extremely compelling. Thankfully the story doesn't solely focus on action, and we get plenty of scenes in which characters discuss their circumstances, their history, and their future.

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,639 reviews2,154 followers
February 27, 2020
I often start my reviews of crime novels by identifying the type of protagonist. It tells you a lot about the book, and a lot of books use the same handful of tired tropes. WINTER COUNTS has the "tough guy" protagonist, usually enough to send me running in the opposite direction. But the thing about these character types isn't that they're inherently bad, it's that they're just so poorly and lazily executed much of the time. This isn't one of those times. Usually the tough guy is past rock bottom and the book traces his path back up to goodness/stability/whatever. He is always going "back" to the good life he squandered because he's not really "that guy" blah blah blah. WINTER COUNTS isn't that kind of story.

Virgil Wounded Horse is a tough guy because it's basically his only option. He isn't there because he ruined a good life. He's there because of the elaborate, systemic oppression of the Lakota people on his reservation. By the end of the book you'll be intimately acquainted with life "on the res" and how just getting off of it doesn't actually fix any of the problems. There aren't that many options for Virgil, and law enforcement on the reservation is basically nonexistent, so there's a demand for a vigilante. Especially one who takes some pleasure in inflicting pain on bad guys.

Things get complicated when his ex's father, a politician and one of the few well-off Lakota, asks him to look into an old bully of Virgil's who he says is bringing heroin into the reservation. Virgil is suspicious about it, but when it becomes clear that heroin is actually infiltrating the community, he takes the job.

Virgil is expertly done. He is just as tough as he should be, has real soft spots and vulnerabilities, but isn't much of an optimist. He doesn't make plans for the future but he's no longer a self-destructive alcoholic. He doesn't participate much in the tribal religious practices but he has good reasons for it. He is the guardian to his teenage nephew and worries about him constantly, trying to keep his life stable but also keeping some distance out of fear and doubt.

The plot moves at a pretty steady clip and I particularly enjoyed how there are several parts of the book that don't impact the central mystery at all, just scenes of Virgil living his life, building our understanding of character and setting while never distracting too much from the big plot. (Particularly enjoyed a tangent chapter spent at Casa Bonita, that Denver institution that any kid who grew up within a couple hours of it is intimately familiar with.) The supporting characters really get to grow and develop along with Virgil.

We don't have a lot of crime fiction from authors of color at all, and Indigenous/Native representation is particularly bad so this is a very welcome addition. It gives a fuller and deeper picture of Native life than we typically see in books by white authors that include Native characters. This is gritty enough that I suspect fans of Don Winslow would enjoy it, and I bet readers of Craig Johnson's Longmire series and C. J. Box would like it, too. I actually can't really think of a type of mystery reader I wouldn't recommend it to except those who can't handle violence. There is a decent amount of descriptive violence, much discussion of drug use, and a lot of casual references to pretty terrible crimes happening on the reservation (sexual assault, violence, suicide) though they're generally off the page.

I hope we see a lot more from the author.
Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,251 reviews233 followers
August 5, 2022
On aboriginal reserve lands, justice often needs to be bought and paid for … and dispensed by enforcers!

US law on reserves denies aboriginal police forces the power to prosecute felonies. And federal law mostly ignores felonies on reserve land, with the possible exception of murders and aggravated assault.

“Because of the Major Crimes Act passed by the US Congress in 1885, federal investigators generally have exclusive jurisdiction over felony crimes on reservations, yet they often decline prosecutions in these cases, even when the perpetrator has been apprehended. Although the percentages vary from year to year, federal authorities frequently refuse to prosecute murders, assaults, and sex crimes referred from tribal police departments.”

As a result, Virgil Wounded Horse has found a niche occupation as an enforcer paid to deliver punishment that the law refuses to dispense – in short, a paid thug who gets a free pass from the local aboriginal cops. His involvement with vigilante law becomes more urgent, more personal, and more meaningful when he discovers that his young nephew is facing a long prison term in adult prison for heroin trafficking. He needs to find where the drugs are coming from and he needs to shut them down ... hard, fast, once and for all!

WINTER COUNTS is an exciting, pulse-pounding crime fiction. But it’s also an honest, hard-nosed look at social difficulties facing modern aboriginal communities not to mention a pretty warm-hearted story of a romance that must might be re-ignited after a long spell on a turned off back burner. Like any good modern thriller, WINTER COUNTS also provides plenty of bite-sized informative tidbits and sidebars on topics necessary to inform the story. With the help of Weiden’s careful research, any reader can look to come away from WINTER COUNTS with at least passing knowledge of a number of Lakota spiritual ceremonies and the disturbing lack of health care options and facilities on native land. You’ll almost certainly also experience a stomach rumbling, mouth watering hankering to seek out a taste of aboriginal cuisine

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,206 reviews3,211 followers
September 22, 2020
4.0 Stars
This was such a deep and powerful character driven thriller. Personally, I loved reading all the details related to life on the reservation and the wider experience of being an indigenous person in the United States. As an ownvoices narrative, I found the insights in the culture were very honest and balanced.

For a thriller, there was very little action until the end. Yet, the action that was in the story was surprisingly violent. The actual drug plot was fairly predictable and I did see the ending coming. Regardless, I still found myself very immersed in the story, caring deeply for the wellbeing of main characters. 

I would recommend this novel to read any reader interested in a slow burning piece of diverse crime fiction with some memorable characters and a whole lot of heart. 
Profile Image for Diana | Book of Secrets.
798 reviews596 followers
January 15, 2021
WINTER COUNTS is an impressive debut novel from David Heska Wanbli Weiden. It's a gritty and often dark crime thriller that follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a hired vigilante living on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. When tribal police and the feds fail to deliver justice, Virgil takes the law into his own hands. He finds himself personally involved in a dangerous case when his nephew falls prey to hard drugs being pushed on the reservation.

This was a compelling slow-burn mystery, as well as an eye-opening look at the hardships Indigenous people face in this country. Lakota traditions and history are woven throughout this story. I loved the well-drawn cast of characters. Virgil struggles with his Lakota identity, and I greatly enjoyed watching his character grow as he fought to save his nephew.

Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
May 27, 2021
Winter Count—a series of pictographs drawn on buffalo hide, cloth, or paper that was used to help remember community history among some tribes of the Northern Great Plains.

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Early on he demonstrates how this works as he beats the living crap out of a guy most people knew assaulted a little girl. Where was the Tribal Police?

"By federal law, tribal police couldn't prosecute any federal crimes that happened on the rez." This same fact is also central to Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. In an afterword x answers the two most common questions he has gotten after publishing his book: 1) Is this an actual federal law? And 2) Are there enforcers on reservations to enact tribal justice? He says yes.

So drugs and alcohol are problems on the rez, but one tribal leader says he thinks one tribal member is helping a gang in Denver establish a heroin trade on the rez. Virgil says, “not my problem,” until it becomes his problem, as hs fourteen year old nephew Nathan overdoses on a “free” hit given to him to get him hooked.Virgil is a recovering alcoholic, he’s a violent guy, and he has no particular commitment to indigenous cultural or spiritual values or even political history.

In the process of asking around he enlists the help of his ex, Marie, the daughter of Ben Short Bear, a candidate for Tribal President. She is smart, applying to med school, and is interested in learning more about how ceremonies and ancient indigenous food can heal her people. Virgil wants none of any of that. And at the ⅓ to ½ place in the book connect it to Round House and Tommy Orange’s There, There, which are all written by Native Americans and have been relatively recently published, (and which I have reviewed here), and I make my guesses:

Will violent Virgil adopt Lakota spiritual and cultural practices of peaceful harmony with the land and compassion or become Lakota Warriors against white abuse and colonization such as were Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse? (I guessed the former)
Will Virgil in this process get together with ex Marie? (I guessed yes)
Will Virgil get heroin off the rez? (I guess yes, or make a good start).

My view of all these books (at the midpoint of this book, at least) is that they are written by Native authors for Native Peoples to encourage them to save themselves by the re-establishment of indigenous traditions and spiritual practices. I mean, the title refers to a Lakota practice of mapping cultural history, but I guess there is a range of history. . . I mean, I don’t expect a lot of surprises.

But then I am surprised! In the process of researching gang and cartel practices Virgil finds stories of torture and grisly murders, and then Nathan is kidnapped by the gang in a failed sting, where he is discovered wearing a wire. Let me just say that torture and grisly murder happens on both sides, as Virgil essentially takes the Crazy Horse way of the warrior in protecting the rez (and Nathan). I am not judging here; if my nephew was drugged and tortured and I had the brutal skills that Virgil has, I might just use them against the drug dealers. And it’s not just a white vs Lakota war going on in this book, as a couple main Lakota characters are made to pay for their sins (by Virg).

So it’s a good first book for David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and I understand others may follow, so I’m interested. It’s a good, character-driven story. I like Virgil and I like Marie. I'll say 3.5, rounded up not because I necessarily like the revenge-oriented Sam Peckinpah Straw Dogs level of crazy violence, but because it contradicted my expectations. I prefer to be surprised. But it's more a violent thriller than a mystery, in case you are wondering.
Profile Image for Natasha Niezgoda.
640 reviews230 followers
January 9, 2022


Um hello! If you have this sitting on your TBR shelf, read 👏🏽 it 👏🏽 now 👏🏽

Okay so you have Virgil who’s had a really shitty hand in life - a lot of loss and a lot of demons. But he’s doing his best to set a good example for his nephew, Nathan. But something sinister is going on within the reservation and Nathan gets wrapped up in it. And it’s up to Virgil to save his nephew’s fate.

Friends - this is one of the best multi-dimensional mystery stories I have ever read! I’m talking beautiful imagery combined with gritty vengeance and deep rooted introspection. HELLO LAYERS! 🙌🏽 I see you and I applaud you!


But seriously, you’re introduced to so many facets of the Lakota people. From showcasing customs to confronting stereotypes to understanding the utter disparities within the criminal justice system - this was eye opening.

And it’s so character-driven! Give it like 1/3 of the way thru for your emotions to fall in sync with Virgil, and then Nathan, and then Marie. They’re all complex and captivating in their own right - and it’s stunning to watch them evolve over this short period of time. They each battle some pretty hard revelations - loss, deceit, disappointment, pain, and heartache. And you can’t but feel a visceral connection with each of them!

Oh yeah, and did I mention the ACTION?! Holy shit... the end was like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film! I don’t wanna give it away, but you can use your imagination!!


Anyway, final verdict: 5 stars and there better be a sequel because I’m not done with Virgil Wounded Horse yet!
Profile Image for Nadine in NY Jones.
2,811 reviews227 followers
November 18, 2020
When Sybil died, everyone said that the grief would get better over time, but that hadn’t happened. What I’d discovered was that sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good—it changes a little over the years, but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.

A Lakota vigilante who drives around in an old Ford Pinto? Yes, please!  There’s a lot for me to like here, but it’s also clearly a debut effort.  

Unfortunately the writing is pretty clunky.  The dialogue is unnatural.  Some of the sentences are trying a bit too hard to be dark, and sometimes it’s clearly just a way to get from Point A to Point B.  And there are a lot of bits of Lakota culture and practices thrown in that really had nothing to do with the plot.  (Like, of course Virgil goes to a sweat lodge for information, and has a vision.)

There’s a lot of filler.  All of the flashbacks to Virgil’s childhood had nothing to do with anything.  Even less interesting were pages and pages about Denver’s gentrification, where to get tacos, Carhenge, the Cosmos Mystery spot in the Black Hills, and why frybread is not authentic indigenous food, to name just a few.

It’s still worth a read.  I look forward to seeing what Weiden writes next.

The ending seems to be setting up the possibility of a series.
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