Beginning in elementary school, we are taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. As if, when he arrived, the land was empty and there were no Indigenous people already living there. What teachers left out was that Columbus and his men essentially told Native Americans, “you are less than us, and we are taking over your land.”
The racist and culturally superior attitude of the early settlers set the tone for hundreds of years of conflict with American Indians, culminating in the U.S. government setting aside tracts of land called reservations for Native Americans to live on.
The main goal of the reservations was to bring the Indians under U.S. government control, and minimize conflict between their tribes and the settlers. However, the results were disastrous, and more than 200 years later, the lingering effect of these poor choices is still felt by many American Indians today.
In honor of Native American Heritage month, Writers from the Edge hosted award-winning novelist David Heska Wanbli Weiden to talk about his book “Winter Counts” on Nov. 17.
Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and a former attorney who now teaches Native American studies at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Weiden is a first-generation college student who grew up impoverished in Denver, and as a child, spent summers going to the reservation where he was inspired to write this book. “Winter Counts” is themed around the 1885 Major Crimes Act – the law that places certain crimes committed on Indian reservations into the hands of the federal government, and states that Native American Nations may not prosecute felony crimes that occur on their own land and involving their own citizens.
In essence, this took away their native sovereignty and independence.
“This is an egregious violation of their sovereignty, because it is the hallmark of an independent nation,” Weiden said. “They can make and enforce their own laws, but that right has been stripped from us.”
The FBI takes on the responsibility, but they decline to prosecute 40 percent of all crimes.
“A violent criminal can be let go and reoffend, and this is really harming the quality of life on many Indian reservations,” Weiden said.
The protagonist of the book is Virgil Wounded Horse, a hired vigilante that takes the law into his own hands by enacting street justice for anybody who hires him. For instance, if somebody harms your child or another family member, and the FBI won’t do anything, you might call Virgil. And for $100 for every tooth he knocks out or bone he breaks, he will go out and beat someone. Weiden read an excerpt from his book during the event, where his hero Virgil “is musing upon what it means to be a Native person in the 21st century.”
Today, there are nearly 600 Native nations in the U.S. that feel their independence and sovereignty has been severely limited. Weiden’s reservation is about the size of Delaware and there are only two grocery stores, no decent healthcare and residents have a terrible time getting decent and healthy food to eat.
We, as a society, have become anesthetized to the plight of the American Indian, rendering them silent and vulnerable to the dangers that exist in our world. Weiden’s book will open our eyes.
For more information on the Writers from the Edge series, please contact Daniel Summerhill, assistant professor of poetry/social action and composition.