The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb
by Patricia Fogelman Lange
Early in her career, her collection of reproductions of sandpaintings began to attract the attention of scholars of Navajo culture. One such scholar was Wendell Bush of Columbia University who traveled to the region and was sufficiently impressed with their quality to purchase thirty of Newcomb’s paintings in 1929.27 Bush realized the importance of Newcomb’s research and obtained a small research grant from Columbia enabling her to continue her work.28 After Newcomb’s recovery from a flu epidemic, Klah grew concerned that her illness was the result of her exposure to sandpainting ceremonies and powerful prayers. With much discussion, Klah and Newcomb finally agreed to his performing a blessing ceremony over a white woman spread throughout the reservation, Newcomb believed “from that time on I was regarded as a member of the Navajo tribe. Whenever I desired to witness a sandpainting or a healing rite on any part of the Reservation, even among Indians I had never seen before, all I need to say to gain entrance was, ‘I have had a ceremony.’”29
A.J. supported her unconventional scholarly pursuits, an unusual role for men at this time.30 In fact, his role as a trader and her career as ethnographer overlapped when he acted as translator, since her command of the Navajo language was not as proficient. In addition, A.J. played a significant role in her chosen profession, according to Priscilla, by supporting Franc’s needs with transportation and supplies when she was invited to attend a one or multi-day ceremony. He contributed towards her flexibility to combine a family and career that included traveling at a moment’s notice, often staying a few days to more than a week at a ceremony. The fact that the Newcombs had the live-in household help of young Navajo women was a great asset in both housework and child care.
Harsh and rugged field conditions were the norm in this region for anyone traveling about, but such obstacles did not deter Newcomb due to her great strength and determination. At times, dust storms would arise, dirt roads would be rough, muddy, or washed out. At first, she rode horseback to nearby ceremonies, but others were as far away as Arizona, and this distance presented problems. Since no one was encouraged to travel after dark due to evil spirits that roamed in the darkness, a car became a necessity. As a result, Priscilla, who frequently accompanied her, claimed her mother ruined a car per year on back country roads. While away, whether alone or accompanied by her young daughters, Newcomb would sleep in the car, on the floor of a tent, or in a shed provided by the medicine man. After sitting for hours inside the ceremonial Hogan, Newcomb drew what she recollected once the essence of the original sandpainting was absorbed by the patient, taken apart, and returned to the earth after sun down. During multi-day ceremonies, she spent nights sketching so that she would not transpose symbolic elements from one day’s sketch onto the next day’s drawing.
Field conditions remained rugged for Newcomb as she indicated in a 1950 letter to Mary Cabot Wheelwright, who at times, subsidized her collection of information or ritual items and expected Newcomb to work exclusively for her:31
This has been a week of collecting under difficulties—first no interpreter—next I went 16 miles every morning to the hoghan [hogan] of Joe Salago and worked in an old dry brush shelter—with your blanket tied above us for shed [shade]—The forenoons were nice, but the wind came up about two o’clock and dust swirled occasionally—so my papers went everywhere—and my eyes hurt.32
In her fierce determination and interest in learning about sandpaintings, Newcomb devised strategies and methodologies to aid in her ascension from amateur to professional ethnographer status. Over time, she learned Navajo, developed a remarkable memory for symbol and color placement, as well as improved eye-hand coordination in her drawings and paintings. According to her daughter Priscilla, Franc Newcomb possessed ad photographic memory.33 As a young girl, Newcomb spent a great deal of time with her grandfather who insisted upon her reading the Bible with him. If she made a mistake her would strike her with his cane—an unfortunate method of teaching but one that has its rewards. She thus memorized the intricacies of Navajo sandpaintings in order to paint her interpretation as accurately as possible while maintaining the necessary inaccuracies. Her continued devotion to the pursuit of Navajo ceremonial life suggests an internal syncretism of this non-Western world view within her being. This devotion served to open a variety of relationships with other scholars interested in Navajo culture.
Newcomb was not formally trained as an anthropologist, ethnographer, or artist. She possessed neither the social standing of Mary Cabot Wheelwright, a wealthy boston socialite and founder of the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Arts (now known as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe) or the academic credentials of the anthropologist Gladys Reichard, who returned yearly to the Southwest. Despite her apparent lack of formal training, Newcomb developed long-term relationships with both women. She first met Wheelwright in 1923 at the second Gallup Inter-tribal Ceremonial, where Wheelwright purchased Klah’s second tapestry rug. She met Reichard about the same time.34
Wheelwright was intrigued with Navajo culture and hired Newcomb as a collecter of information in the eastern quadrants of the Reservation.35 She often stayed at the Newcomb post or camped with one of her guides, Jack Lambert, while observing ceremonies or collecting legends. Sometimes, Wheelwright hired Newcomb for her ethnographic services or hired both Newcombs as coordinators in escorting Klah to her Maine summer home or to her home in Alcalde, New Mexico.36
Reichard went on to write the impressive Navaho Religion, as well as other publications, while Wheelwright released several publications and created and created a museum that eventually carried her name. Overshadowed by her eastern associates’ education, finances, affiliations with publishers, and network among male scholars, Newcomb’s work never received its die recognition.37 In an interesting analogy, anthropologist Louise Lamphere states that Reichard’s work was overshadowed by influential scholars such as Clyde Kluckhohn in his major ethnographic work on Havajo culture and Father Berard Haile’s work on Navajo myths. Lamphere believes that Reichard’s work was undervalued throughout her life. She only achieved recognition fifteen years after her death in 1955.38 Clearly gender played a significant role, giving men’s work more weight and recognition than women’s.
Inevitably, the closeness of people with similar interests fosters the exchange of information. This was true for Newcomb who generously volunteered her knowledge to Wheelwright and Reichard, which provided additional interpretation for their work. Newcomb and Reichard collaborated on the publication Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant, while Newcomb and Wheelwright collaborated with Stanley Fishler on A Study of Navajo Symbolism.39 Priscilla revealed that Wheelwright freely obtained a significant amount of material on sandpaintings from Newcomb, “almost too freely,” which may indicate that Newcomb essentially gave away the ritual information and many drawings and paintings that Wheelwright incorporated into her publications. For example, Wheelwright’s Great Star and Coyote Chant contained twenty-two serigraph color plates created by artist Louie Ewing and carried and acknowledgement on the title page as having based his work on the sand paintings recorded by Frank J. Newcomb.40 Later, in a description of thirteen of these paintings, Newcomb was acknowledged for her contribution of collecting and reproducing these paintings on paper. At another time, Wheelwright re-wrote the Navajo emergence myth collected by Father Haile and once again, Ewing serigraphed six of thirteen color plates from Newcomb’s sandpaintings, and, accompanying descriptions.41 Other publications, such as the New Mexico Folklore Record, followed this pattern whereby Newcomb’s paintings were easily copied and translated into engravings. Acknowledgements stated, “From The Collection of Franc J. Newcomb,” which suggested that Newcomb had merely collected the art as opposed to having actually collected the information and then created the paintings.42