Photographer Edward Curtis and Indian Uses of Desert Plants in Arizona

Bear wandering about a plethora of desert plants waiting to be harvested. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness.

I haven’t posted about my novel for a while and thought I’d give you an update. I made a lot of progress last summer but when the school year resumed, I become inundated with responsibilities and lacked that long-ago ambition to get up before the sun rose to work on it before I began a long, hectic day. So, I work on “Inside the Gold-Plated Pistol” it in my spare time. Which is why I’m still not done with it. BUT! I’m getting close to completing the first draft.

Edward S. Curtis photograph “Hopi Girl and Jar”

There’s one character you know little about. She’s taken up a lot of my time with research which is half the fun of writing historical fiction. Kay is a Hopi Indian and the Hopi are a prominent, matrilineal society like the Navajo with a large reservation they share with the Navajo in the four corners region of the United States (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado).

In my story, Kay was separated as a young girl from her family and raised by a German couple who leased a farm in Clarkdale, Arizona. I live in Clarkdale and the scenes in the novel occur at real spots I’ve hiked around next to the Verde River.

There are certain decisions I’ve made regarding what to focus upon in the novel. It’s 1927, and I want to avoid stereotypes like the plague and create a realistic Native American girl who has lost her identity. At 19, she is in a position to figure out who she wants to be. For Native Americans, there were three choices for adopting an identity whether consciously or not. First, return to the Hopi tribe and “be” Hopi. Two, reject the Hopi tradition and assimilate into white culture. Three, become a hybrid of sorts, holding on to and existing in the white culture while honoring parts of traditions discreetly.

As Kay figures herself out, she is befriended by an old Apache grandmother who tries to teach her Apache ways. From the 1880s to the 1950s, Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Navajo tribes shared traditions because of the forced removal and tribal integration on the reservations.  Over the years, tribes blended versions of dances and art forms. While there is a fierce pride in keeping with tribal traditions that are distinct as “Hopi” or “Navajo”,  Native Americans instinctively bond with other tribes first before they would bond with whites. This is a generalization and exceptions are always found. What fascinates me is how an individual chooses their cultural identity. Native Americans see themselves as unique and they are; a minority group trying to be autonomous while surviving in a larger culture. I find their grace and artistry and traditions fascinating.

That leaves me to play with Kay (Hopi for “elder sister”). I’ve given her a set of situations and she must figure out which direction she will choose to adopt. Will it be the Apache way? The Hopi way, or the white way?

Edward Curtis photographer 

Edward Curtis self-portrait

I’m a big fan of Native American photographer and ethnographer, Edward “Shadow Catcher” Curtis. From the 1880s to 1930s Curtis recorded thousands of wax cylinder recordings of music, language, and mythologies of Indian tribes in the Southwest. His expansive photography captures the grace and beauty of Southwest Indians. His photographs are now famous although he had little fame or fortune during his working years. I recommend reading Edward S. Curtis: Coming To Light or  WATCH THE AMERICAN MASTERS DOCUMENTARY    for more information about his extraordinary life. Particular to this post, I love his photograph of the young unmarried girl holding a jar featuring the traditional Hopi hairstyle; it had to be the inspiration for Geoge Lucus when he came up with the Princess Leia hair-do.

Desert Plants and Their Indian Uses 

Creosote bushes, Sycamore Canyon Wilderness

One aspect of the Indian tradition that they all shared was their way of harvesting and use of wild desert vegetation. I recommend James W. Cornett‘s informational book Indian Uses of Desert Plants (ISBN: 9978-0-937794-45-6) by Nature Trails Press.

Looking toward the Red Rocks. The band of riders heads out across the valley.

In the novel, the band of adventurers with Zane Grey, William Clark III, and 1925 Western film director William K. Howard and star Jack Holt and the three principal fictional characters, George Hero, Sally Vandenberg, and Kay the Hopi Indian cross on horses into the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. Kay has been asked to harvest certain desert plants for medicinal purposes like the Creosote bush, the Ocotillo, and the toxic Jimson Weed. Scenes in the camping trip will incorporate these and other common desert plants and how Indians used them.

Jim and Bear in front of an Ocotillo Cactus.

Take a look at the top of my blog and hit the “Second Novel” tab. You’ll get a rundown on the three principal characters. For now, here’s a brief introduction to Kay the Hopi Indian:

     Kay watched Sally pull out a folded Chinese fan and snap it open it with a dramatic snap of her wrist. She fanned her face vigorously combatting the moisture that pooled in drops on her upper lip. She smiled at Kay pleased with herself for getting the free ride and swirled into the front seat and leaned as close to the door as she could. Kay spat the dust from her mouth and climbed up in the back of the truck and sandwiched herself between the two older calves. She guessed they were about eight months old, large enough to be pulled from their mother. The calves bellowed and Kay rubbed their ears and spoke German to them. She offered the calves a drink from her canteen by pouring the water into a metal pan. She leaned against the one next to her and felt comforted by his wiry hair and noisy breathing. She recalled Sally’s criticism that she stank and rubbed the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand.  She thought about her deceased caregiver, the submissive Mrs. Weese.

     Mrs. Weese was a quiet woman, but when she did speak, she only spoke German. She was mopish yet obedient to the wishes of her husband as she taught Kay how to scrub away the dirt from everything surrounding them in and outside of the house. Kay learned how to cook German dishes including how to stuff the pork casings with sausage. Mrs. Weese taught Kay how to pick the vegetables from the garden and the fruit from the orchard. They canned their harvests in mason jars and set them in rows on wooden shelves built in the dirt cellar below the house. At the end of a day’s work, she taught Kay how to change without exposing herself. Nacktheit ist eine Sünde. Kay alternated between three smocks and a nightgown, ever mindful to hide her body because nakedness was a sin. The bathroom in the house was so tiny when Kay’s growth spurt elevated her beyond both Mr. and Mrs. Weese in height, her long legs wouldn’t fit in the space between the commode and the closed door. The porcelain tub was tiny, and she could barely cross her legs and fit in it. When Mr. Weese installed a utility sink in the barn, she started washing in the barn.

     Soon thereafter, she left the mudroom porch at the back of the house with her wooden WWI cot and moved out to the barn which was larger than the house. With scraps of wood, she made herself a wider, longer bed frame. She put straw on it and nailed folded thick blankets over it and slept on the covered straw. In the barn, she could stretch and have all the privacy she wanted. She was in charge of the animals anyway, so their warmth and their sounds were her comforts while the Weeses tended to themselves inside. When she was older and she required no watching over, they came to ignore her for most hours of the day as long as she went to the Reservation School school during the morning and did her daily chores in the afternoon. She ate supper with the Weeses in the evening and helped clean up the dishes, saying nothing unless spoken to. She’d do her daily business in the toilet, then head out to the barn to sleep.

     She had free time to practice her reading and she thought about numbers and rearranged them in her head. She counted and wrote on the walls of the stalls until she acquired notebooks to write in. Kay learned how to make ceramic bowls by a girl named Sue at the Reservation School who was Hopi. Someone had donated a kiln and it stood at the back of the school. Sue shared the secrets of her mother and how to create bowls and dishes. When Sue moved away one day, Kay felt sadness and her first stab of loneliness. By memory, Kay practiced making dishes and bowls. She liked making numbers and geometric patterns around the rims. After a year, she thought she was pretty good at it and gave a vase to Mrs. Weese. Mrs. Weese gave her a rare hug and kept flowers in it during spring and summer months.

     Kay’s life annually followed a predictable pattern of chores and maintaining the running of the farm around the expectations of the season with an obedience that she never questioned or thought different than other girls her age. When Mrs. Weese coughed up blood and spent time in the infirmary, Kay hadn’t accompanied Mr. Weese. She stayed back and took care of the farm. Eventually, a coughing spasm took the life out of Mrs. Weese.

Kay was nineteen, and she surmised she had a pretty good life up to this point.

Thanks for reading, friends.

28 thoughts on “Photographer Edward Curtis and Indian Uses of Desert Plants in Arizona

Add yours

  1. I like those old photos too. They look very little like they are portrayed in western films, more like Incas, or Aztecs, I think. Great to get more background of where you live, and the relevance to the novel. I enjoyed the teaser, and the scene with the cows was tangible.
    Best wishes, Pete. x

  2. I’m waiting. You certainly have grabbed my attention, Cindy. What a cast, both fictional and historical. Warn Kay to watch out for Zane Gray. He did more with his hands than write books.

  3. Cindy, this is a fascinating read. Congratulations on what you have accomplished; the joy of discovery in the research, and putting pen to paper to write this story. Wow! I love the old photographs, too. Thank you.

    1. Hi Jennie, thanks for popping in to say so! I love to research–it frequently pulls me away in and leads me in to connect the patterns of the time. My local history is rich and interesting. I’ll be sharing more soon. 🙂

  4. Curtis’ legacy is very important.
    I’ve always felt a kinship with the Southwest natives – and love that country. I’ve had dreams about past lives in that culture before the Whiteman came. So this subject always grabs me.
    Very nicely done.

    1. Thanks, JC. I was hoping you would read it. I want to explore Curtis’s history more. The episode in the series which features him looks fantastic. I can’t wait to watch it. I would like to get the book with his photographs, too.
      What an interesting person! Thank you, JC.

  5. This really sounds like a Hopi named Kay, with many details included to help draw a picture and fill in her character. The photograph is an amazing one. I liked your joke about George Lucas. 🙂
    I wear pin curls on either side of my head and my grandies think I look like Princess Leia. It is less stressful on my hair than hot curlers. (Mom is nearly bald. . . )
    Hugs and best wishes for peace, joy and now, hoping you stay healthy after so much pain and suffering. . . Take care, Cindy! ☘️ 🌈 💚

  6. I think my first sentence on 3/18 may have seemed awkward. Cindy. Sorry! You were descriptive and careful in portraying Kay. This sounds like a “real person” who happens to be a Hopi – Native American.
    It is wonderful how you are immersing yourself into the environment, setting and period.

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