Good news for Walt Longmire fans! David Heska Wanbli Weiden says the portrayal of law enforcement in Indian Country that you may have absorbed from Craig Johnson’s books or the (terrific!) television series, are on the money.
A Zoom presentation arranged by the Southeast chapter of Mystery Writers of America this week featured Weiden. He is a lawyer, member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and author of the 2020 crime novel set in Indian Country, Winter Counts, which won numerous awards. (I’m still thinking about the recipes using indigenous ingredients the new casino chef was trying out!)
Weiden reminded viewers that the 577 Native American nations in the United States are exactly that—sovereign nations, and enrolled tribe members have dual citizenship. In any enterprise involving humans, of course, differences arise, and tribes have varying approaches on how to determine membership. So, if you’re writing a story that involves Indian Country, you’ll have to ask questions. While some laws apply across the board—for example, tribes do not have the right to prosecute felony crimes that take place on their own lands—other variations in criminal justice policies and practices do pop up.
In a felony crime, the tribal police must involve the FBI. In the case of Weiden’s home reservation (Rosebud), two FBI agents are assigned, yet are located a hundred miles away in South Dakota’s state capital, Pierre. Agents assigned to reservation work are not necessarily native; he gave the impression they are unlikely to be. These are not considered plum assignments, and agents rarely stay long enough to learn, appreciate, and respect the culture they are policing. Equally important, tribe members don’t develop a relationship of trust with the agents. And, of course, these situations play out against the backdrop of a difficult, neglect-filled history.
Even if the FBI makes an arrest, prosecutors may decline to pursue the case. In fact, Weiden says, they decline to prosecute as much as half the time or more, even in cases of murder and sex abuse. By contrast, outside Indian Country, only about ten percent of cases are unprosecuted. These enforcement and prosecution patterns are one reason private vigilantism has arisen. The protagonist of Winter Counts, Virgil Wounded Horse, is just such a vigilante, with all the dangers such a path exposes him to.