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.

IMO: Welcome to My World

There’s a part of me that feels like I’ve cast myself into the tundra, face first into the arctic blast, alone, as I now live inside my head, writing and editing this second novel. On one hand, that’s how much I miss blogging. Denying myself the fun of sharing thoughts about films, culture, books, and camera angles from my side of the world. Who knew your cheery comments and fun conversations would come to mean so much?

The maudlin side of me put aside, like a stashed cigarette secretly smoked, I have secretly read your posts but haven’t commented, but you all seem fine and well.

Das Buch:   Weimar Germany and the depravity of Berlin. The cabarets, the darkness of sin, drugs, and Bessie Smith. Poor George Hero, my anti-hero bordering on an unreliable narrator, has had a rough time of it since WWI.  I’ve been listening to Philip Glass while I write, and I am glad to report this first part of the novel is completed because Philip Glass wears on my nerves and depresses me, but he seems perfect for putting me in the right mood to represent the dark. In contrast, as if emerging from a cave at noon, the next part of the novel takes place in good ‘ole sunny Arizona. Sally is the feisty young copper cutie, a dancer, who dreams of becoming a Ziegfield girl and star on the Hollywood stage.  She will need her chutzpah to survive the invasive force of her mother. She is cast as an extra in a western. She is determined to become indispensable and befriends Zane Grey and Gary Cooper.  She has a needy friendship with Kay the Hopi Indian, who is a chameleon, sometimes seen as female, sometimes as male, sometimes as Apache, and sometimes she hears the whispers of her mother and sisters wanting her to remember the Hopi way. Meanwhile, she is the recipient of the elaborate gold-plated pistol, hollowed and filled, with the means by which she can free herself from her past, present and have a say about any sort of future. To what extreme will George reclaim the pistol from Kay?

As teacher:  After 18 years, I am counting down the final eight so I can retire. I know it’s a sin to wish your life away–just the working part of it. It’s hard not to this time of year. Spring is the time the drama begins. The school year is drawing to a close. State testing has students restless and apathetic.  Juniors are applying to colleges and seniors have emotionally left high school and await graduation. Teachers are tired and resigned what they are trying to sell in the classroom no one is buying. Teachers compete with students’ cell phones, the prom, sport team demands, and being a cast member in the musical. Is it any wonder they don’t care about John F. Kennedy’s involvement in the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights? Gee, if I can’t get them interested in the volatile sixties, this last month of school could be tortuous.

Meanwhile, teachers are grumbling because the new superintendent has shaken things up. The master schedule’s modifications include removing classes with lower sizes to make it equitable across the board. (If one teacher has class sizes of 30 and another only 12, is that fair?)  That means cutting out the advanced and elective classes. Personally, this means all the classes I love teaching have been taken away from me. The gems like AP US History, AP World History, and a big sting, my Holocaust Studies/Recent World History class. Gems because teaching college level courses are the perfect fit for me. I have been struggling with my pride over it. Be a team player. You are a cog in the wheel. Get over yourself. Readjust your attitude. It still hurts, though.

The Vikings and Nationals Baseball: Strangely, I’ve taken a break from watching movies. I’m binging on the television series by the History Channel via Amazon called The Vikings. Man, I love it. When I come home from work, after watering the flowers, one or two episodes with a beer or glass of wine is a great way to relax before starting supper. I’m on series three. I like the monk Athelstan (George Blagden) the best because rarely in films or television do you see the importance of the role of the monk in history, in this case, by preserving the scrolls of Roman England. I’ve been to Ireland and have seen The Book of Kells and love the artistry of the monks’ calligraphy. The character Athelstan straddles the conflict between pagan/Christian religion. Michael Hirst who wrote the series includes Old English and Scandinavian languages when the two worlds collide; it’s delicious to hear the languages spoken.

The culture of the Vikings is complicated. The legends and mythologies have fascinated many for years.

When I’m not watching The Vikings, I am watching the Nationals play baseball. We are off to a great start this year by leading the NL East with 10 wins and 5 losses (.667). My favorite players are Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. They bat 3, 4 respectively, and the two are hitting powerhouses. Like Lennon and McCartney, their competitiveness inspires the other to do better. Go Nats!

Books: I’m reading Paula McClain’The Paris Wife. It’s about Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife and their time in Paris during the 1920s. Ernest is trying to become an author and I can’t help but pretend we two are trying to accomplish the same goal. Except he doesn’t have to go and teach teenagers every day. He gets to sit in a Paris cafe and drink all day long while he writes. It didn’t go so well for him in the end, did it? Who knew my students would save me in the end? Ha!

Okay, bye again. Back to the novel.

Love & Friendship,


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. 


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