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.

George and the Opium Den

The month of February was a blur of moving and working. And writing. I’ve been concentrating on writing creatively rather than creating blog posts about films. Also, I haven’t gone anywhere to share any photo shots. For now, I just want to keep working on “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol”. George Hero is in Berlin,1922, working as an extra for Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler. Here is what he does in his spare time: 

Sunken clouds spit a late April rain on the back of George’s neck. He entered a cracked lane overtaken by weeds toward an abandoned water tower of chocolate bricks and curved windows that looked like drowsy eyes. The architecture was nothing like the white, water tower in Chicago where as a boy he had watched his father work as a foreman. This one was a rectangle box eight stories tall, a fortress from a medieval dream. As George approached the back door, the bumpy clouds obscured the morning light and gave the building a sinister appearance. The dampness absorbed into the stump at his wrist, and it ached as he poked at his neck trying to stifle the itch under his skin. It had been three days since his last visit to Mr. Li’s opium den.  

        Within walking distance of the UFA studio complex, hidden from the main road behind vines that coiled around the Hemlock trees, he knocked on a door and waited for a Chinaman to open the center window and admit him. The small window-door snapped open and a man with puffy eyes squinted at him. He recognized George and let him in. George hunched down and followed him, watching his braid roll on the back of his tunic as he led him through the basement. Room dividers partitioned a corner, and as George whiffed the aroma of opium, he salivated. A pot-bellied stove heated pots of water and warmed the area while a young worker prepared opium tea. Kerosene lamps sat on tables and a davenport. George walked over to the old man who organized the den and gave him Deutschmarks.

        Guten Tag, Joe,” he greeted George with a thick accent. “Here.” He patted one of eight Army cots each covered with a military blanket, all positioned in a circle with a center island for the young worker on a stool. His work table contained candles, matches, bowls, opium pods, a pester and grinder, tubes, bamboo pipes, and a hookah.  He had a long, curved pinky nail which was filed and used as a spoon. When filled, the nail held exactly half a gram. George thought that was clever.

        “Hello, Mr. Li.”

        He kicked off his soggy loafers and placed them next to the stove to dry. He set his overcoat on a wooden chair by his cot and lay down feeling like a bug on an ashen petal connected to a dead daisy.  As he waited for the opium to foam and to inhale the vapor, he ignored the other bug two cots away and stared at the room divider. There was a red dragon coiled and twisted on a silk panel. He inhaled and closed his eyes. Soon the flush dulled his senses. That dullness turned into a stupor like a blanket that covered him with nothingness, and he floated to a place where Private Cox could not penetrate. In this dreamy blackness, his one impression was that he was in his mother’s womb, and his relief became an audible groan.

     He lay there for several hours before he had to report for filming.


The following is an old post about Fritz Lang and German Expressionism and Hans Poelzig, an inspirational architect for this story.

Hans Poelzig’s Sulphuric Acid Factory in Luboń, Poland (1911-1912)Hans Poelzig’s Chemical Factory in Luboń, Poland (1911-1912)

Expressionist German architect, Hans Poelzig, and Thea von Harbou, the screenwriter and wife of Fritz Lang, have a grip on my imagination while I create the climate of Weimar Germany in the manuscript, “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol”. George Hero, my American World War I veteran, arrives in Berlin, and stumbles into the world at UFA studios wherein 1922, Thea’s script is filmed by Fritz Lang: Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler.


Who knows why she held her German Nationalist views while Fritz Lang emigrated to the United States or how she was implicated in a murder, but my fiction will dabble with the possibilities and recreate the evening involving George.

Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou, married, 1922-1933
Hans Poelzig Architecture 

light columns at the Grand Theater’s entrance hall

The Großes Schauspielhaus, Berlin, Germany circa 1920
What a pity Hans Poelzig’s grand theater exists only in pictures now. The honeycomb pillars resembled stalactites and the circular design without balcony seats, according to Ross Wolfe’s article “Scary Architecture: The Early Works of Hans Poelzig” found HERE, was an exquisite example of German expressionist architecture. Imagine the ceiling full of lights to imitate the stars. Before its demolition in the 1980s, the theater’s history included Nazi control in 1933 when its grandness was hidden behind dropped ceilings and eventually turned into a warehouse. I wish someone would recreate it for new audiences to enjoy.

Thank you for reading. 


George and the Weimar Republic

After spending a unit of World War I and the Weimar Republic in the classroom, my imagination created George Hero who suffered in more ways than one. The words fell right out of me. My first novel, The Knife with the Ivory Handle was set in 1900. Now it’s twenty years later, and the second manuscript “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol” is on the back burner. Why? Time consumed by blogging. Caring for my granddaughter. Jim. Watching movies. Three jobs. All wonderful parts of my life. But the creative writing suffers. Writing is a process of isolation. I’m trying to rectify that, to put my second novel back into the forefront of my life. Maybe if I share the process with you all, I won’t feel lonely writing it. So here’s the beginning:


Chapter 1

Weimar Republic    

He reached for the hand that was not there with an ache to grab his thumb, trace the outline of his fingers, or scrape off a lengthy fingernail. In his mind, he made a fist and punched the face of the dead soldier with the feminine features. Out of the shadows, the sun poured into the cabin car and George Hero squinted out the window as the train arrived at the Berlin station. The information board clicked the date: March 12, 1922. 13:00. The steam escaped from the train with a whoosh, and the iron wheels groaned to a halt.  Dimly, it occurred to George that he had been roaming without forethought for two years since his discharge. He was reluctant to return to his parents in Chicago because he discovered many widowed women in France were attracted to him. With his pitiful command of French and their few words of English, it was easier to communicate with smiles and sympathetic fingers. Especially if she had children by her side. They looked up at the stump at his right wrist, and their eyes filled with curiosity and disgust. He wrapped the hot wound with clean bandages during the day and at night massaged the stretched, shiny skin.

      What am I to do with one hand?  The ghastly stitching on the top of his forearm mirrored his thoughts, and his indignation boiled for the skittish private who had misfired. During his stay in the Army field hospital at St. Mihiel, George dubbed him Private Cox, digressing with his pun by imagining daily ways of amputating the private’s genitalia. George chopped, burned, shot, squeezed, and sawed off Private Cox’s manhood.  

        George was transferred to Camp Hospital No.4 in Paris which was converted from abandoned school buildings into a makeshift hospital with no running hot water. He convalesced with 400 other wounded soldiers and waited his turn, the loneliness as profound as the pain that emanated from his amputation. When he was released, George’s anger intensified when he failed at buttoning his shirt or shaping a tie.  When he pissed, he had to ask for help to button his pants, so he switched to trousers with zippers with limited success. It was impossible to tie his bootlaces. George practiced writing with his left hand. If he wrote very small, he had more control over his penmanship. He had a nurse post a letter to his parents: February 3, 1919. Dear Mom, I lost a hand, but I’m still alive. Healing in a Paris hospital.  Will be home soon. George.

        After his discharge from the 103rd Infantry, he impulsively changed his mind and sold off his return passage for one hundred Francs and two vials of laudanum. Private Cox was dead, but George Hero’s anger lingered and leaked to the women who broke convention and touched him freely as their nurturing tendencies invaded his personal space. At first, he enjoyed the abundant opportunities for sexual interplay. Their eyes widened over his good looks. They hovered over his clumsiness, appeased and stroked him. In him, they saw a replacement to their dead husbands, and he learned to compensate for the lack of a hand.

        At twenty, his broad shoulders and plump lips gave him an older, sensual appearance. A pattern emerged as he made his way with a map south into the French countryside avoiding St. Mihiel, the empty trenches, the mountains of shell casements, the grotesque trees, and the rubble of destroyed buildings. He loitered in towns and searched for women whose clothes were once of good quality but had worn thin. Usually, their houses mirrored the state of their clothes. Before World War I, houses had been bright with colorful doors and whitewashed walls. Now crooked shutters leaned to the ground and fences faded to brittle gray. He would walk up and offer his services in exchange for food and sleep in the barn. On the first day, he was polite and completed chores he could manage with the help of her children to hold a nail or grip a tool. He surveyed the property, the windows, and the exit doors. He worked his way inside and ate at the kitchen table. Her stew was delicious, he praised, and the hand on hers, brief. On the second day, as she hung her clothes on the line behind the house, he tripped and pretended to fall. He grabbed her waist and held her. She blushed and patted his shoulder. That evening, he leaned forward after the meal and kissed both her cheeks. She found brandy in the cupboard. He thanked her for bandaging his wrist which throbbed with pain. She sighed and expressed with body language how long it had been since a man had held her. They rolled on her lumpy mattress and slept; when they woke, his stump pulsated with a heartbeat of its own. He asked where he could find an opium den. In Lyon. In Saint-Étienne. In Avignon. He allowed the opium dens to influence his direction, and the widows became checkerboard pieces as he leaped from one to another.  

        In late fall outside of Bourges, he met a young mother whose husband had propped a Sunbeam motorcycle up against the side of the house when his conscription orders informed him to report to the town square in 1917. It still waited for his return. George assessed he’d have to replace the crank and give the 3.5 hp engine a tuning. The back tire sagged. It was the first time since his amputation that his heart lifted with excitement.  Could he get parts? He worked on it with the help of her eight-year-old son. They made a handsome pair, three hands manipulating the machine, and it charmed the mother. She gave herself with a passion that startled him. At night, he kissed her with enthusiasm, spread a cheek, and burrowed inside. He stayed in her warmth while the snow fell and icicles spiked down off the fascia. 1921 came quietly.  Winter’s pastel skies deepened as spring arrived and turned the earth spongy.

        She followed him around the room with her eyes. She fussed with his clothes and claimed his body parts with roving fingers tips. When he sat down, she leaned a hip on the arm of the chair, patted his crotch, and waited expectantly for him to pull her into his arms. Her insatiable need for affection annoyed him. George grew restless. He confiscated her dead husband’s wallet, a tie already formed into a knot, a jacket that fit, and a pair of loafers a little too small, but at least he could slip into them without needing help to tie the laces. The motorcycle rumbled to life and his departure came swiftly thereafter. He felt a twang of guilt as he aimed for the Mediterranean. He imagined her returning from her errand from the village. He heard her chirp his name with two syllables as she checked the barn, the kitchen, and the cellar. He saw her brace herself. Each time she called out Geor-ge, her voice lowered into a whine. He imagined her eyes fill with tears when she saw the motorcycle was gone. Perhaps, she reasoned, he just went for a trial run. She would hiccup with hope and dash upstairs to see if his possessions were still in her bedroom. Nothing of him remained, and her tears dripped off her chin. He could see her clearly as though she sat on the handlebars.

        George maneuvered around a sharp bend and the bike wobbled. He drove slowly and focused on balancing. He had figured out a way to roll towels and secure them with a strap to his elbow so he could balance the right side of the handlebars. Gingerly, he braked with his left hand and leaned as a counter-weight.  He would miss her smooth shoulders and the slight protrusions of her ribcage where his fingers traced and she wiggled. Her son would frown, confused he left without a word.  The boy talked with a sissy squeal. George clenched his jaw. He felt suffocated by the pair’s silent insistence that he stay.

He dreamed of the war at nighttime with mortar fire and the strobe lights of the shells that punctuated the darkness. The tanks rolled and the screams of the hit reverberated in his mind. Fashioned from the fog of an opium high, he began to have a recurring dream where details grew sharp and shadows seemed real. In his dream, he swam in the air away from the sounds of the war. He used a breast stroke and exerted his arms and made paddles of both his hands. He kicked his feet, but he floated nowhere. Shadows raced ahead of him like ghostly whispers. Then, superimposed on the backdrop of the night, a bombast of fire streaks lit the face of Private Cox. George swore at him. His dream changed, and he ran through the trench, stumbling over the bodies cluttering the ground and jogging with the rats in a maze that never ended. He turned a corner and there was Private Cox.  He stood in front of George with a bamboo pipe breathing and exhaling in a seductive fashion, his long lashes flickering, his mouth open and puckered. It disgusted George. He reached for his gun in his dream but both hands were gone. George stood helpless. Private Cox gave him a lascivious grin and laughed.

        George sat up in bed and hit his head with his palm and wished he could expel the sounds out of his ears. The women would sit up on their knees and coo French phrases. After a year, he grew bored with the predictability of them all. Sometimes his actions grew rough, and his voice snapped. Sometimes in bed, his pats turned into slaps as he forced them into strange positions.  He shoved them away and started to cry. He begged them for forgiveness. Their eyes softened and their worry lines disappeared when they tried to hold him. Then his feelings flipped. He found them in contempt for forgiving him and started to yell at them. He learned it was dangerous to stay too long, but the widows made it easy for him to stay. They were spiders that spit their filaments over his body and tried to wrap him in a cocoon. They found him jobs he could handle, introduced him to family members, and brought girlfriends over to inspect him. He bought another vial of laudanum from the apothicaire and told himself it was for the ache from the stump.

        He spent the winter of 1921 in Marseille in an apartment overlooking the harbor with an older, sallow woman whose appetites matched his own.  The realization he needed opium more than he needed sex or companionship began to creep into the shadows of his mind. He abandoned the dying motorcycle and bought train fare. He headed toward the one city he heard whispered for indulging strange proclivities and addictions–Berlin. When he pulled into the city on March 12, 1922, he arrived with a decent wardrobe, a silver pocket watch, and enough money to buy second class passage from Hamburg to the United States when he was ready. George stepped down onto the platform and a part of him mourned.  His home in Chicago might as well have been on the moon.

        I’m sorry, Ma. I think I lost more than a hand.  

Thanks for reading. 

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