C. M. Wendelboe entered law enforcement following his discharge from the Marines. During the 1970s he worked in South Dakota towns bordering three Indian reservations, assisting federal and tribal law enforcement agencies embroiled in conflicts with American Indian Movement activists, including those at Pine Ridge. During 38 years in law enforcement as police chief, policy adviser, and other supervisory roles, he's most proud of his early days of "working the street." He retired as a patrol supervisor to pursue his "true vocation" as a fiction writer.
Curt, what prompted your Spirit Road mystery series?
I began my law enforcement career in an agency near two Sioux Indian reservations, which gave me a good foundation for understanding the culture. After many years of further studying Plains Indian history, I felt that I could tell a decent mystery that people would enjoy reading while at the same time telling the Lakota’s story. The time living around the reservations and my experience and education in law enforcement has allowed me a high degree of authenticity in my mysteries.
What impresses you most of the Sioux Indian culture?
The traditional Lakota family is one of mutual respect, mutual cooperation in maintaining harmony within the community. This had always been. Take for instance crimes committed in the historic tribal setting. The Lakota, as many Plains Indians, held a set of values and a set of punishments often determined by the victims of the crimes. Even punishments for capital offenses were most often left up to the victim’s family members. They felt that, if the killer would himself be put to death, that such action would lead to retaliation by the offender’s family, which would lead to further vengeance. You get the picture. By allowing the offender to offer gifts to the survivor’s family for his transgression, harmony would be restored to the tiospaye, the family group.
There is an effort on reservations to return to more traditional ways of dealing with family. In the historic family setting, spousal abuse was unheard of, children always respected, and elders cared for and revered. Makes a good case for returning to the “old days.”
What types of crimes are prevalent on the Indian reservations?
Every type of crime that happens off-reservation takes place there. Police there are probably worked harder than off-reservation jurisdictions, and are commonly short-staffed. Add to that some problems that occur when the Bureau of Indian Affairs officers are brought in from other reservations to assist tribal police. These officers, professional though they are, are frequently unfamiliar with the host culture, and conflict often occurs.
One seeming anomaly that occurs on reservations recently is gang activity. Much like their big-city cousins, these Indian gang members are involved in every crime one reads about in newspapers. Even when I worked around the reservations, such criminal involvement was unheard of, and this makes for a disturbing trend.
Have you formed friendships with the native Americans?
I have had many Indian friends through the years, probably the most notable being an Indian officer that worked for me when I was Police Chief in South Dakota, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Jerry Lytle. Where I worked was an off-reservation town that had less-than-stellar record of Indian-White relations. When Jerry came to work for me, he put those differences aside and performed his job admirably with no hint of the racial undercurrents in the area, even though he was from Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. He continued his professional conduct and later rose to the rank of Police Chief. He remained an example for other officers to emulate.
The other stand-out Indian friend I’ve developed is Ernie LaPointe, great grandson of Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull. He’s dedicated his life to putting out the message of his Great Grandfather which is to live traditional Lakota beliefs, once again espousing the historic message of harmony and respect.
Tell us about your latest mystery?
Death Where the Bad Rocks Live takes place in the Badlands National Park, in that area that the government took for a bombing range in WWII. One of the first targets used by the Army Air Corps was old cars dragged out and left for the bombers. At the time of the story, there was five-thousand acres of the Badlands Bombing Range that had not been cleared for unexploded ordinance, and the tribe has contracted for Explosive Ordinance Disposal companies to locate and diffuse bombs. It was one of these crews that found an arm bone sticking from the dirt inside one of these old car-bombing targets. Manny has since been reassigned to the FBI Rapid City Field Office and responds with tribal officer Willie With Horn, as the skeleton in the car is excavated.
They ultimately identify the victim as a geology student from Black Hills State, missing since the 1960’s. Manny and Willie soon identify the victim’s college roommate, Alexander Hamilton High Elk, as a prime suspect. High Elk is now a federal appellate court judge recently nominated for the U. S. Supreme Court. High Elk will do most anything not to have his name tarnished prior to the Senate confirmation hearings.
Two older skeletons were also found in the car. They were identified as a geology professor at the School of Mines, and Moses Ten Bears, Oglala sacred man. Both men went missing in the mid-1940s. Manny and Willie connect the deaths of the two older victims to Judge High Elk.
As he works the case, Manny must work in that mystical area of the Badlands the Lakota call the place Where the Bad Rocks Live; a place known for unexplained deaths and disappearances. And Manny doesn’t want to be the next victim, either from the rocks or from someone trying to kill him.
Did anyone serve as your mentor?
Craig Johnson, author of the “Longmire” mystery series, aided me tremendously. He helped facilitate my manuscript for Spirit Road getting into an editor’s hand at Penguin/Berkley. Since then, he has been invaluable in explaining intricacies of the publishing business, and even allowed me to accompany him on a motorcycle book tour last year. I learned more in two weeks about this business than years of studying the markets and advise from insiders.
How did your writing career come about?
I’ve always written. When I was in the 7th grade, I began submitting short stories, all which promptly came back (in those days, rejections were returned.) As an aside, I recently found my first personalized rejection letter, which I framed. I continued writing short stories until entering the Marines, and resumed writing in earnest after discharge. I had a measure of success with short stories, but realized about eighteen years ago that I needed more room for plot and conflict development, more space for character interaction. So I began writing novel-length fiction and continue in that venue today.
Advice for fledgling authors?
Write what you enjoy reading, and write as often as your day job will allow. When I began writing novels, I chased the market, writing what I thought editors would buy. And by the time I finished with that novel, the genre was no longer in vogue and I looked around to see what was the next popular genre. Until I began writing mysteries (what I most love reading) I put words on paper that were obsolete the moment they flew off my typewriter. I’ve found my home writing mysteries. I turn the lights down, lock the door, and shudder whenever I write a death scene that makes the hairs on the nape of my neck stand at attention. I love murder mysteries!
Your social media links.
Web site: www.spiritroadmysteries.com and Twitter: @spiritroad