The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb

by Patricia Fogelman Lange

Page 4

Other scholars, including Leland Wyman, corresponded with Newcomb to obtain ceremonial information and use her paintings in his publications. For example, in a 1954 letter, Wyman wrote to Newcomb that Bollingen Publishing Company was sending her a check for her paintings, and that he would like to study her “sketch of the corn and birds.” In the same letter, he requested Newcomb’s notebook containing her notes on one of the great Beautyway chanters. Several years later, in 1959, when Wyman began his study of the Wind Chant, he wrote Newcomb that he was interested in any of her paintings not already in New York or Santa Fe.43 After studying many of her paintings and obtaining information from her and Kenneth Foster, Director of the Navajo Museum of Ceremonial Art, Wyman published his manuscript The Red Antway of the Navaho and dedicated it to Newcomb.44 In Southwest Indian Dry Painting, he used a number of her signed paintings from the Wheelwright Collection with no credit line to Newcomb.45

Newcomb’s classroom and fieldwork for thirty-five years was the spiritual world of Navajo ceremonies. Her personal collection of over 800 works, entitled “The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Johnson Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers,” is currently housed at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her hundreds of drawings and paintings based upon these ceremonies are located in a number of other public institutions, including: the Bush Collection at Columbia University, New York; the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff; and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, in Santa Fe; as well as various private collections. They document the healing, initiation, or blessing ceremonies of the Navajo while providing insight into the complexity of the Navajo, philosophic and religious belief systems.


Grandma Klah’s family – Klah, Ahdesbah and her three daughters, Mrs. Sam, Mrs. Jim, Daisy and son, and grandaughter Lucy Hapaha. Photograph courtesy of The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers.

Newcomb observed the details of each ritual painting in terms of line, color, and placement of features, in the same manner as Navajo singers who practice their hand and memory skills over many years. The slightest shift of color in spirit beings can indicate a male or female version of the same chantway. Newcomb’s drawings and paintings are reproductions of ceremonial symbols, human, animal, plant, and cosmological images related to creation stories and legends. Composed of many tiny sketches and ranging to large paintings, her collection contains male and female branches and sub-groups from twenty-four chantways. Her earliest painting, dated 1923, is from the Shooting Chantand the last were drawn from the Plumeway collected in 1934 but drawn in 1959 (many works were drawn or painted at a later date). Each work is either unsigned or possesses anyone of a number of signatures, such as F.L. Newcomb, Franc Newcomb, Frances Newcomb, F.J. Newcomb, Franc J. Newcomb, or Franc Johnson Newcomb. Occasionally, a reference to the singer who conducted the ceremony is included in the hand-written or typed descriptions attached to the back of some works. Some chantways have become obsolete or are rarely used today.

She utilized brown wrapping paper from the trading post and colored pencils for many works and later managed to obtain opaque water color paints, crayons, and various colored boards. Like many artists, she sketched on anything—either lined note pads, cardboard, or the back of correspondence. She simulated as closely as possible in two dimensions what she initially observed in three. Paintings were never exactly the same even when she duplicated them for museum collections.46 Ultimately, as happens in an oral tradition, some of her paintings have become the only extant of particular ceremonies.

Each ritual sandpainting is formed with colored sand held and poured between the thumb and forefinger by a singer or helpers; often a singer has a number of assistants creating a painting which can take several hours. The ability to create intricate details such as fine lines and delicate color changes requires a steady hand and great accuracy. Sand is obtained along with natural materials, such as ground sandstone and mixed with other colored sands, mica, or charcoal to attain primary pigments of red, yellow, and blue. White and black are then added to the palette to create secondary colors of brown, pink, and grey. The background of a ritual painting is tan sand often one to two inches deep to level out the ground. At times, mountains are built as high as twelve inches. During the ceremony, Newcomb wrote that “the medicine-man picks up sand from each of the colored symbols and presses the sand to the body of the patient. In this way, the power and imperfection of the objects symbolized are transferred to the patient to give him strength and bodily perfection.”47 In some instances, designs move outward from the center emblem. There are three different types of compositions—radial, linear, or an extended center. Radial or circular paintings are in the form of a Greek cross. Linear works have symbols on bars in rows, and the extended center displays a central location such as a pool or mountain where the action occurred.48

Beginning in 1931 and continuing until her death, the determined self-taught Newcomb, published poetry, articles, and books on Navajo culture either by herself or in conjunction with other scholars. She lectured publicly and was interviewed on radio where she shared her experiences and knowledge with popular and scholarly audiences. She experimented with rhyming poetry writing on familiar subjects in the stylized manner of her times.49 These works provided another creative outlet contributing to her individual growth. In 1939, Newcomb painted a “word picture” entitled “Navajo Sand-Painting,” reflecting her observations:

A grinding stone upon the Hogan floor,
Bright colored stones on either hand,
A calm-faced worker bending oe’er
Strong brown hands that grind the sand.
A few live coals upon the hearth,
A shaft of sunlight falling where
Clean wind-blown sand—substance of the Earth,
Spread canvas for the pictured prayer.
Swift fingers deftly dripping seven hues
Of sand, that falls like summer rain,
Trace ancient patters, never their’s to choose.
Traditions stored within the Chanter’s brain.
And so this pictured prayer is wrought
With patient skill by revernt hands,
In symbols, old as human thought;
On Mother Earth—with colored sands!50

In addition to writing poetry, Newcomb published a biography of her dear friend and mentor, Hosteen Klah, in a form of folksy ethnographic writing, described her life on the Navajo Reservation, wrote on omens and taboos in the Navajo world, collected Navajo folktales published for children, and authored numerous articles alone or in collaboration with other scholars.51

Reflecting her deep immersion into Navajo life, Newcomb advocated improving health conditions for the Navajo. Her early interest in healing became intertwined in the daily life of the remote area surrounding the trading post, where few medical facilities were available. Having achieved a reputation as a woman with medicine, she received the Navajo name “Atsay Ashon” (medicine woman).52 She cured several Navajo friends with her knowledge and supply of Western remedies. Newcomb related an incident that occurred after she received a basic kit of medical supplies from a federal agent. A deep wound had placed Billy Yazzi (Klah’s nephew) near death, and a medicine man from Chinle Valley was summoned to perform a Knife Chant. Upon hearing the worrisome news, she stubbornly insisted helping as best she could even though she might be censured for his death. Against the advice of her husband and their Navajo clerk, she entered the Hogan during the ceremony carrying aspirin, hot water, boric powder, a pair of scissors, Epsom salts, and clean dressings. Waiting for more than an hour while prayers were chanted, the medicine man sullenly granted her permission to treat the patient, perhaps because she was the first white person to join him in a healing rite. After the wound was drained and cleaned, the patient made a startling recovery. The Navajo agreed that her assistance did no harm to Yazzi, but, as is customary, the medicine man and his helper were given full credit for their job of healing.53

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