The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb

by Patricia Fogelman Lange

Page 2

The Newcomb family lived at the post from 1914 until 9 May 1936, when a fire destroyed the structure. With the assistance of Navajo friends, it was rebuilt at the year’s end, but the new quarters were considerable reduced. Priscilla Newcomb Thompson remembered her parents saying they were starting over with a similar space to what they had in 1914. Eventually, the trading post was sold in the mid-1940s and A.J. died shortly thereafter in 1948. Harriet Manuelito Williams, recently remarked, “The Navajos still miss the Newcombs and [say] that Dad [A.J.] was the best trader they ever had.”13 Newcomb’s role as cultural broker and trader eventually allowed her to to obtain a broader understanding of Navajo culture.


Newcomb standing next to her car on the Navajo Reservation (date unknown). Photograph courtesy of The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers

The 1890s witnessed deviations from traditional gendered norms. Women outsiders such as Newcomb, and later Laura A, Armer, intrigued by Navajo culture, we encouraged by friends or family to immerse themselves and transpose Navajo sandpaintings or drypaintings onto the two-dimensional surface of paper or poster board with watercolor paints.14 Conventionally, men such as Washington Matthews, James Stevenson, Edward S. Curtis, and Alfred M. Tozzer studied and published on Navajo culture prior to Newcomb.15 Women, including Mary Cabot Wheelwright, collected Navajo art and recorded Navajo legends.

It was at this time that Franc Newcomb’s spiritual awareness and intense interest in Navajo religion began to evolve. Her unique ability to memorize sandpainting symbols, placement, and color enabled her to transcend traditional gendered roles. She became a strong, multi-dimensional woman.16 With the assistance of Navajo singers, she subsequently translated or reproduced three-dimensional ritual sandpaintings into a remarkable two-dimensional painting genre, generating more renderings than any prvious individual. Her involvement in documenting reproductions sparked intense feelings toward Navajo religion. In fact, Marjorie Lambert in a 1996 interview said of Newcomb: “She just thought that the religion of the Navajos was absolutely what everyone should believe in.”

Newcomb’s introduction to fieldwork as an ethnographer and artist developed through her closeness to the surrounding Navajo community but particularly due to her friendship with Hosteen Klah (1867-1937).17 This association opened up a world of serious scholarship that Newcomb accepted with great enthusiasm. The progressive Klah was the first to welcome A.J. and later Franc Newcomb, as her helped them understand and become integrated into Navajo society. He was one of the most renowned and respected singers, proficient in several ceremonies including Nightway, Chiricahua Windway, Hailway, and portions of others.18 Klah was considered a great man of his tribe. Shortly after the Newcombs’ marriage, he invited Franc to attend his healing ceremony with its accompanying complex and lengthy rituals and sandpaintings, stimulating a deep new interest that obsessed her throughout her life. Her desire to engage in ethnographic documentation was further sparked by chance, stopped at the post towards the end of Klah’s first majorYeibeichai or Nightway Ceremony. When Fewkes learned of the ceremony, he asked to remain with the Newcombs until its conclusion. According to the thinking of the time, he said to Newcomb, “‘You are living now among a primitive people whose culture has been little affected by contact with white people, you have a golden opportunity to record their customs and their religion along with the symbolism.’”19

Although it was with difficulty that Newcomb initially gained entry to ceremonies due to her ethnicity, she was aided by a Navajo tradition that viewed outsiders as a source of potential good.20 As she crossed cultural boundaries, she became the lone female outsider among many Navajo. To quote Newcomb, “recording Navaho symbolism was a project no white person had ever been able to undertake.”21

Her degree of full-time cultural participation was significantly more intense and richer than for most anthropologists who returned for several weeks or months each year to conduct their research. The more ceremonies she attended, the more accepted she became. She apprenticed as a singer, learned chants and prayers, and eventually refined her specialized skills to become a remarkable source of knowledge to native people and outside scholars. Years later, according to Priscilla, when Newcomb was recovering from a prolonged illness, a group of Navajo medicine men traveled to her sick bed in Albuquerque to discuss her understanding a vanishing Navajo ritual.22

Klah has been concerned for years that fewer Navajo children were apprenticing to medicine men, the result of their receiving a Western education. Traditionally a young child between seven and nine years old lived with a singer, learning the necessary chants, herbal remedies, and rituals to become a sandpainter. Already in his fifties when he met Newcomb, Klah had no assistant and was distressed that his life might end without transferring his knowledge to a successor. Noting her intense fascination in ritual ceremony, Klah assumed the role of tutor as she became his student at thirty years of age.23 Although previously adopted into Klah’s clan, she now had to be purified  in a blessing ceremony. When her middle glass, Anglo standards could not be overcome, and modesty prevented her from baring herself in front of others as was the Navajo custom, she substituted a sheer blouse permitting Klah to perform the ceremony.24

When Newcomb presented her first ceremonial sketch to her husband he expressed concern that this image might create a conflict between them and their Navajo friends if its content violated Navajo cultural taboos. She did not destroy the work but instead sought Klah’s advice, who felt no harm would arise in her creating drawings or paintings translated from her mind’s eye, since Navajo philosophy espouses the concept that whatever is in your mind belongs to you. The accumulation of knowledge was perceived as the paramount virtue within Navajo tradition—the only true human possession.

Having had little training memorizing these new symbols and their formal relationships to one another, Newcomb described her first attempt at creating a ceremonial drawing:

When the rites had ended and I had time to try putting these designs on paper, I found that my mental pictures were a jumble of rainbows, crosses legs, tal corn, and medicine bags… When Klah saw me at the hopeless task of drawing these first sand paintings, he asked if I would like to have him paint them for me. I was delighted…Klah worked with the pencils and I with the paints. When two figures were alike, he drew one and I copied it for the other one. He made the intricate designs and I drew the rainbows and the plants.25

This reciprocity became germane to both Newcomb and Klah for they both feared the imminent loss of Navajo culture. Since Klah was an important singer, his acceptance of Newcomb’s re-presentations on paper influenced other medicine men to accept her work. Mary Wheelwright confirmed Newcomb’s acceptance in the Praface to Klah’s Creation Mythwhen she said, “All the community of Nava [later called Newcomb] finally became interested in helping us and took pride in the completeness of our knowledge and would show off Mrs. Newcomb’s knowledge of sandpaintings to visiting Medicine Men.”26

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