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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

Gina Capaldi responds

to my questions on art, what goes on in the artist’s head, clothing, and accuracy: 

Gina Capaldi:  I spent close to 12 years researching this book so it is near and dear to my heart.  I also felt it was imperative to keep every detail as accurate as possible and have kept reams of documentation that I will gladly share.   As you know, illustrations are an interpretation of text, and it was my job to be true to Montezuma’s letters while incorporating historical information.  From this point of view, I tried to interpret the fear of a little boy and all the overwhelming moments and confusion that befell this little guy. There is overwhelming documentation about how he felt in given situations, and from this I built the story and art.

In a very small nutshell, I will try to explain my approach and address your comments.  Indeed, the Pima and Yavapai were longtime enemies.  It is important to also note that some of the Pima were farmers and supplied the U.S. Army with wheat and worked as scouts for the government.  Prior to Wassaja’s abduction, some the of Yavapai bands went peacefully onto the some Army forts with the promise of protection against their enemies.  At Fort McDowell, the trusting Yavapai were  given blankets infected with small pox and most died.  Those who did not die stole into the night and warned the other Yavapai  bands to not trust the government.  Wassaja’s family was one of the bands that hid among the mountain caves. The Yavapai continued to be hunted down by the Pima and the U.S. Army. 

The Pima sometimes wore Anglo clothes, as seen in the storehouse scene and in the pictures from the National Archives.  However, what you refer to as "breechcloth" (I don’t know the actual Pima word) was also worn and was a traditional garment.   I’ve  tried to be as authentic as possible and have documentation on everything. I would be more than happy to pass it along. The Anglo clothes worn are a part of American and Mexican (Spanish) influences.  In the case of the celebratory war dance, I chose geometric elements to make a visual statement, which also included traditional garments to reflect the traditional celebratory moment. 

The dance scene you mention is one of my favorite pictures because the visual elements which create the drama of the moment. In this dance scene, you see a mass of bodies surrounding a little boy in a what Carlos Montezuma called a war dance.  I think it was more of a celebratory war dance because the battle attack against the Yavapai enemy had ended with the collection of booty, abductions and no Pima lives were lost.  In truth we really do  not know what type of a Pima dance it was so putting all the pieces together creates a celebratory dance in my own mind.

Carlos Montezuma details the dance as an extremely emotional moment and since he met with the Pima Chief many years later for some sort of an explanation of the abduction, I have to go by his documentation.  At any rate, what I tried to achieve was a visual dust bowl where dominant men danced around the frightened boy.  The circle of dust is the visual vehicle that keeps the viewer intent on focusing on the main image and the drama of the moment.  The main image is the little boy, Wassaja. This picture is simply a visual interpretation based on text.  I chose the geometry and visual elements to center the drama versus the horrific visuals of what actually happened, which among other things included women and children spitting on and throwing things at the five-year-old child. In reenacting the exact text rather than the "feeling," I believe I would have created a picture that would have been inappropriate and what ethnologists refer to as "the ethnocentric other."  

Another visual approach I used was to keep the Pima faceless in this dance.  They were faceless to the terrified boy. Montezuma wrote that strangers wearing hats hauled him away.  He did not even know they were Pima until one of the other children told him the day after they were abducted.  This part of the story is not included because, frankly, it’s a picturebook and space is limited.  The wonderful thing about picturebooks is that much of the text left out is addressed visually.  So, with this understanding, I approached the dance as a chaotic frenzy. 

 There is no nudity in this book, including the dancing men, as they are wearing their breechcloths and covered by the movement of dust.  It is important to note that most Yavapai children in early and late history did walk around nude during the summers.  The Yavapai women were often topless.  The publisher and I chose to cover the people and keep original photographs of Native Americans in their natural state because of current standards.  I hope people do not read into this.  Native Americans were certainly clothed and very modest, but simply stated, nudity was a natural part of life and a practical way of dealing with the climatic elements.  

During the development of this book, I worked very hard  and close to 12 years to ensure that I maintained the integrity of Carlos Montezuma’s story, as he told it, and included history as documented.   I also went to Fort McDowell and met with tribal leaders on six occasions, visited Montezuma’s grave, felt the earth, and saw the mountains he knew and loved.  In fact, it was one of the Yavapai leaders who first informed me that it was their own relatives who traveled down to the forts only to be given the infected blankets.  I was told this as we stood in their cemetery on the Fort McDowell reservation.   

I think that A Boy Named Beckoning is not just about history and culture, but it is mainly about the spirit of a great man.  Montezuma never resented the Pima for what happened.  He sought to understand why he was abducted.  He worked tirelessly for all Native Americans’ rights.  A little known fact is that as an adult, a Pima man boarded at his house in Chicago. After Montezuma died, his wife married a Pima man (not sure if it was the boarder). Most important, this book is not about groups in history or the ethnocentric other but about the spirit of a man I consider a hero.

Thank you so much for asking these questions. It gives me a chance to share my views and intentions.