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.

Are You Not Entertained?


Tom Hanks optioned the rights to Erik Larson’s nonfiction bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts six years ago with intentions of starring in the historical adaptation. Add to that rumors of securing Natalie Portman to the cast with Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) as the director. What’s it all about? Chicago historian William Dodd passes the interview with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and becomes the American ambassador in Berlin in 1932. Dodd thinks it will be a simple job that allows him the time to be with his family and complete his historical research regarding the Old South. Instead, he walks right into the wasp’s nest as Hitler gains momentum and the insipid Nazi agenda poisons Berlin. It’s his beautiful daughter Martha that makes the story fascinating as her sexual promiscuity with Nazi leaders becomes the source of malcontent and disenchantment. I loved Erik Larson‘s The Devil in the White City. This one is just as good, if not better because it focuses on the American family trapped and pawned by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Highly recommend. 4.5/5.


Other than a bunch of Gene Hackman films for which I’ll get to posting about soon, these recent films entertained me:

The Shape of Water (2017) It’s an adult fantasy film. Don’t take your kids. Who doesn’t like a love story? Even if it’s with an amphibian? If you love Pan’s Labyrinth, you will probably enjoy the latest contribution by Mexican director/writer Guillermo del Toro Gómez. Set in 1962, the mute Eliza works as a cleaning lady at a hush-hush government facility ruled over by the sinister Strickland played perfectly by Michael Shannon. Eliza comes in contact with “the asset” and their friendship grows into love. Octavia Spencer played her character Zelda with snappy one-liners we all love, but the best acting performance goes to character actor Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s neighbor and closet homosexual. The ending may be predictable, but there’s abundant charm that outweighs the incredible scenes that ask the audience to play along. Magical Realism is fun. With the right mindset, you will enjoy the fable. Best detail: Eliza trails water on a bus window and the water takes shape. The poem at the close of the story is beautiful. 4/5.

The Last Jedi (2017) I liked it because they smartly melted enough of IV into the VIII to feel the roots of the saga. For example, it was nice to see Yoda again. I remember having a crush on Luke Skywalker in 1977 when he stood on that rock and looked at the sunset and his face turned orange with his name song in the background. John Williams, you are still the supreme manipulator of emotions! To see Luke do it again, different rock, a sunset, and his song, well, the 13-year-old in me shed a tear. It took me half the film to decide if the character wearing the foxy brown suit with the purple hair played by Laura Dern was a good guy or a bad guy (lady). I usually like contrasts, but my biggest flaw with all the Star Wars movies is “they” include all the cool technology and high vernacular that only an engineer would understand and then follow up that dialogue with a corny one-liner. It never felt right to me. That, and the puppets now have turned CGI, but they were never convincing. Frog nuns. Hmmm. 4/5

 The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) American comedy-drama film directed and written by Noah Baumbach (Francis Ha and Wes Anderson collaborations). The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel and Emma Thompson. It’s popular to hate Adam Sandler, but when the man isn’t doing stupid comedy and sticks to dark, he’s very good at it. There’s a lot to love about this movie from Emma Thompson‘s hippy-drunk wife to the perfectly annoying patriarch, Dustin Hoffman, giving a convincing performance and supported by everyone in the cast. Want smart and realistic dysfunctional? You’d like this dark comedy about siblings learning to overcome and tolerate their overbearing father. 4.5/5.

In the Heart of the Sea

Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) Man vs. Nature

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK  specializes in U.S. maritime history and combines his engrossing story-telling sensibilities with fine research. In 2000, his nonfiction National Book Award Winner, In the Heart of the Sea, inspired the 2010 PBS documentary Into the Deep directed by Ric Burns and narrated by Willem Dafoe. Next came the recent 2015 Ron Howard film, In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, and Cillian Murphy. Of course, Herman Melville wrote the classic Man vs. Nature classic, Moby Dick, in 1851 about Captain Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the mighty Sperm whale. All four versions of the sinking of the whaleship Essex combine the history of Nantucket and the Romanticism between the sailor and the sea and his ship. All versions are worthy ways of spending your time and will enhance your knowledge of Colonial America.

The History 

The 50 by 30 mile stretch of land off Cape Cod became the heart of the whaling industry from approximately 1620-1865. Until the advent of kerosene, the highest quality oil used to make wax candles and light lanterns were from the rendered oil of whales. Dug out from the bulbous head of the Sperm whale, the Spermaceti oil could fill 34 barrels and was most valuable. At first, the Wampanoag and Nantucketers stripped and boiled the blubber from the drift whales which had been stranded on shore. Over the years, sailors ventured further off the coast to deeper waters and discovered pools of Sperm whales. It evolved into a two hundred year industry and sailors became more than hunters. The ships became floating factories for processing and storing the oil. They became merchants and explorers, too. For one to five years, sailors set off on voyages in search of whales to fill the empty barrels lying on the belly of their ships. From Nantucket, the Westerlies pushed them toward South America. They rounded Cape Horn and floated up the coast of Chile to the Galapagos Islands and kicked out into the expansive Pacific Ocean in search of the migratory pools of Sperm whales. According to scholars on the PBS documentary, Into the Sea, “By 1775, 360 whaling boats went out to hunt the whale; 15 came from Nantucket. Fifty percent of the profit of exports in New England came from the whaling industry.” I don’t think it can be stressed enough how important the whaling industry solidified the economic success of the burgeoning northern colonies. Consider that the South had cash crops (tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton) while the North had whales. It is interesting to consider that both regional ends vanquished mammals for their economic success – whales in the north and slave labor in the south. 

New Bedford Whaling Museum, Harpooning the Whale

The Romance

The culture of a sailor and his life onboard a ship was a mixture of extremes. Boredom, while waiting to spot the whale. Then,  “Thar she blows!” followed by the rambunctious attack with harpoons aimed for the lungs, the pull and the stabbing, the gross “flurry” as the whale drowns in her own blood, the shout from the crew, “Chimney’s afire!” and then the three-day processing of peeling off the blubber, melting of blubber, the furnaces stoked and the smells and the slime of oil glistening the faces of the sailors as if they labored in the pits of Hell. Ghastly.

Remember to factor in the religious temperament of the 17th and 18th-century colonist whose explanation of the workings of the world were inextricable with the Bible and Divine Providence. That is, the sailor, the captain, and her ship were “vessels of exoticism, traveling around the globe in the pursuit of conquering the Leviathan, a sea monster from the Old Testament.” The whale was considered evil; man’s conquering was a noble feat. Surviving a voyage was an adventure for the crew and the officers; it defined manhood. The beauty and wildness of nature attracted the sailor. The horizon blended water and sky into a location of unearthliness. There was no time or place. Out in the Pacific Ocean–it must feel to what astronauts feel out in space–one is a speck, surrounded by infinity, overwhelmed with fear and awesomeness.

The Film 

After watching the film five times, I am in admiration of Ron Howard. He followed Nathanial Philbrick’s book with the attention to detail that mirrored the historical climate from the book. The true voyage of 1820 combined an unnatural pairing of the first mate, Owen Chase, (Chris Hemsworth) the “fishy” second-in-command whose natural instincts and assertiveness commanded the respect of the crew, while Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was more a “social” leader, seeking suggestions, and thereby perceived too passive.

Where Ron Howard might have lost a few critics and fans for lulls in the action was the overarching narration of the telling of the story from the perspective of an older Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who was a cabin boy during the sinking of the Essex and the 90 days lost out at sea. Fighting the shame and guilt of sins committed staying alive, Nickerson is paid by a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) to share the survival story and strange actions of the angry 85-foot Sperm whale, Moby Dick, who “stove” the Essex.

By including this line of narration, Howard blends the history of the story with the American Romantic classic, Moby Dick. Philbrick’s book centers on the recently discovered diary from the 1990s of the cabin-boy, Nickerson, to add a fresh twist to the long staple, Owen Chase’s account of the disaster, written months after the 1820 disaster. Howard respects this and gives life to the orphan boy who found himself at 13 on the voyage of a lifetime.

Ron Howard is criticized for his sappy interjections in an otherwise interesting plot. It’s his Achilles Heel. In this case, while devoting his film to a logical, realistic account, he incorporates the Man vs. Nature elements of the novel Moby Dick by bestowing anthropomorphic qualities to the whale. It’s the climax of the film, so I can’t specifically say, but it is the flaw of the film for me that brings my rating down a notch. I will hint at it: when man and beast come eye to eye, they come to an understanding.

In Nathaniel Philbrick‘s account, the whale struck the ship and was never seen again. The film version embellishes the history by embracing Melville’s book. Those that love Herman Melville and the personifications found in the literature would not have issues with the personification of the whale in the film. If you want a realistic account of events, the climax might feel far-fetched. Does it work? You tell me.  4/5.

American Experience: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World DVD 

Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford (eds). (2001). Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. A Norton

     Critical Edition. Second Edition, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

     ISBN 9780393972832

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex., 2001. Print. 

ISBN-10: 0141001828  ISBN-13: 9780141001821

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