The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb

by Patricia Fogelman Lange

Page 5

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Newcomb had to balance several worlds: a career of ethnographic documentation, wife, mother, healer, and daily responsibilities at the post. In order to meet so many demands, she awoke at four or five A.M. and spend the next two hours, which she called her “quiet time,” creating. “Work, for the night is coming” was the short refrain she sang while cleaning the house, cooking, or working in the post, according to Priscilla.

Despite moving to Albuquerque in the mid-1930s to permit her daughters to receive a public education—since Anglo students could not attend Indian schools—Newcomb and her family returned to the post during weekends, vacations, and summers because the Reservation was their “real” home. Fortunately, she worked on her paintings during her months in Albuquerque which proved beneficial when the post burned in 1936, sparing only a collection of pawn. Other valuable collections of personal photographs, baskets, kachina dolls, and Navajo rugs were lost. City-living allowed Newcomb to participate in a varied number of organizations, as well as welfare and political activities. Her initial work was with the Navajo, although later in Albuquerque, Newcomb helped obtain social services for low-income families. She became president of the Women’s Club of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Women’s Club, and vice-president of the New Mexico Poetry Society. She was a member of the American Pen Women’s Club, the Howden Guild, the Folklore Society, a found of the Navajo Ceremonial Museum of Art (now the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian), set up a Visiting Nursing Service, and was ultimately awarded “Woman of the Year” by the National League of American Pen Women.54


Franc Johnson Newcomb lecturing from her large sandpaintings. Photograph courtesy of The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers.

Frances Lynette Johnson Newcomb died in 1970, leaving a significant legacy of her achievements, knowledge, and creative expression. The defined her life, exemplifying her shift from and Anglo middle class background in the early twentieth century, to acquiring the tenacity and fortitude to find self-fulfillment through hard work and observation. It is difficult to imagine the study of Navajo religion, folklore, and ethnology without Newcomb’s contributions. Today, Newcomb is beginning to receive her much deserved recognition through a painting exhibit which ran from 22 February through 31 March 1996, by l’Etablissement public dup arc et de la grande halle de La Villette in France.


I am grateful to Priscilla Newcomb Thompson, who was kind enough to share invaluable information regarding her mother and commenting on an earlier draft of this paper. Thank you also to Bruce Bernstein, Paul Zolbrod, and Willow Powers for their input on an earlier draft of this paper. A special thank you to an unknown reader and to Charles H. Lange for commenting on this final draft. Thank you to librarian Laura Holt and her staff at the Laboratory of Anthropology for assistance in finding obscure source materials; Louise Stiver, Morton H. Sachs, and Priscilla Newcomb Thompson for assistance with photographs; and curator Janet Hevy for archival assistance at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

  1. Nancy J. Parezo, Hidden Scholars: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993). Even within the sensitive publication dedicated to women who have made great anthropological achievements, Newcomb did not receive her own tribute but was subsumed within the biographical sketches of Mary Wheelwright and Gladys Reichard.
  2. Franc Johnson Newcomb and Delia Purdy Peterson, “History of Tunnel City and Trade Territory,” folder (1966-1967), Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Johnson Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers, 93 FJN, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1-10 (hereafter cited as Newcomb Papers).
  3. Patricia Trenton, ed., Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 (Berkeley: Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with the University of California Press, 1995), x.
  4. Priscilla Newcomb Thompson to author, 11 June 1996; Priscilla Newcomb Johnson, interview by author, 5 March 1996. A.J. first worked for C.C. Manning in Gallup and then for George U. Manning at Fort Defiance. During this training period, only A.J. and Charlie became influent in Navajo.
  5. Leland C. Wyman, Southwest Indian Drypainting (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research, 1983), 16; Newcomb Papers. According to Wyman, singers are trained practitioners who possess ritual knowledge to control dangers and prevent contagion from such sources. The singer’s performance is judged by the supernatural Holy People. Women are seldom singers due to fear of prenatal infection. “They are not absolutely forbidden to help make a sandpainting or to see one being made, but they are not welcome until after the task has been completed. Some singers will not admit women into the Hogan. If admitted, women may not watch the erasure of a painting.” More often women are diagnosticians employed to discover the cause of the patient’s illness and determine the necessary ceremony to cure it. In her papers, Newcomb indicated that there were several Navajo medicine women knowledgeable in ritual.
  6. Frank McNitt, The Indian Traders (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989). Newcomb and McNitt both called the trading post Blue Mesa, but Harriet Manuelito Williams, a long-time Navajo friend of Priscilla Newcomb Thompson and the grand-niece of Hosteen Klah, corrected this translation to Blue Point. The location of the post was known to the Navajos as Pesh-do-clish or “the Blue Point,” referring to the blue pottery clay on the nearby mesa. With the establishment of the Post Office, this area was previously known as Nava or Crozier and later renamed Newcomb.
  7. Franc Johnson Newcomb, Navajo Neighbors (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 19-22. Located in such a remote area, the post had to be self-sufficient. Newcomb described a long barn beyond the post where large sacks or wool, hay, and grain were stored.
  8. McNitt, The Indian Traders, 301. Two Grey Hills weavers worked with a specific type of wool, color, and pattern to produce exceptionally fine rigs. Yet, within this defined stylism and patterning, each weaver maintained an individuality. McNitt maintains that the trading post was very successful since the Newcombs maintained high standards for the Two Grey Hills rugs they purchased and marketed. A.J. acquired a reputation as the largest rug dealer o the reservation.
  9. Large numbers of visitors would not be unusual despite the remoteness of the area for institutions, such as World Fairs. Museums in Europe and the United States, beginning in 1879 through the early part of the twentieth century, were paying individuals to find and send prehistoric and historic artifacts of indigenous people back for their collections. Many early anthropologists and traders participated in this practice.
  10. Franc Johnson Newcomb, Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 158-59.
  11. Swedish Prince and Princess Folder, Newcomb Papers.
  12. Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 37-38.
  13. Thompson to author, 11 June 1996. This remark probably refers to the fact that A.J. was fair in his business dealings with his Navajo customers.
  14. Barbara A. Babcock and Nancy J. Parezo, Daughters Of The Desert: Women Anthropologists in the Southwest, 1880-1980 (Tucson: Arizona State Museum, 1986), 48. According to Babcock and Parezo, Laura Adams Armer (1884-1963) took annual ethnographic and painting trips to the Navajo and Hopi reservations between 1924-1932. She was a photographer, artist, writer of juvenile books, and illustrator. She produced the first film of a Navajo ceremonial and copied many sandpainting designs for Mary Wheelwright between 1924-1942.
  15. Washington Matthews, Navajo Legends (1897; Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994); Washington Matthews, The Night Chant (1902; Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994); James Stevenson, “Ceremonial of Hastjelti Dailjis and Mythical Sand Painting of the Navajo Indians,” 8th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, D.C., 1891), 229-85; Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian(1907; New York: Johnson, 1970), 1; Alfred M. Tozzer, “ A Navajo Sand Picture of the Rain Gods and its Attendant Ceremony,” International Congress of Americanists 13 (1905), 147-156. Matthews (1843-1905) was an army major and surgeon and one of the earliest recorders of Navajo culture. He was conversant in Navajo and spent twenty years working with Navajo singers to record the multiple songs and rites of the Night Chant, a nine-day winter healing ceremony, as well as Navajo legends. Stevenson (1840-1888) was one of the earliest pioneer anthropologists working for the Smithsonian Institution to record and collect thousands of material culture objects from the so-called “dying” cultures of the Southwest. Curtis (1868-1952) was an early photographer of Indian life. Tozzer (1877-1954) was a distinguished anthropologist and archaeologist who taught at Harvard.
  16. Marjorie F. Lambert, interview with author, 17 September 1996. When Lambert met her years earlier (1940s) in Santa Fe, she saw her as a shy woman who barely spoke. This silence might have been due to the social setting that they both found themselves in as Mary Wheelwright was also present. But such posture might also indicate Newcomb’s adopted “Navajo social skills”—demonstrating reluctance to be conversant when socializing with Anglos. Priscilla additionally noted that her mother transformed herself, becoming more Navajo than white as she grew older.
  17. Lambert, interview with author, 17 September 1996. Klah’s name translates into “Lefthanded,” while Hosteen is a term of respect. He was an outstanding weaver, neighbor, and friend to the Newcombs who helped them survive in their new surroundings.
  18. Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Hosteen Klah, Navajo Creation Myth: The Story of the Emergence, by Hosteen Klah, Recorded by Mary C. Wheelwright, Religion Series vol. 1 (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, 1942), 10; Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 97, 112, 115. Klah knew the complete Hail Chant and Creation Myth, the Blessing Chant, Wind Chant, and Yeibechai [Nightway]. Additionally, due to the fact that Klah was discovered in his teen years to be a hermaphrodite, he was believed to be honored by the gods for his unusual ability to combine both male and female attributes. It took Klah twenty-six years of studying before he held his first Nightway ceremony in 1917 during which time he asked critics to watch for errors. Since there were none, he was immediately acknowledged as a Yeibichai Chanter. His progressive nature was illustrated in Newcomb’s description of an early blanket weaving Klah created in 1911 displaying images of Yeibichai dancers previously unheard of in weaving. When other Navajos and medicine men found out about this rug, a great furor erupted and they insisted Klah hold an “‘evil-expelling’” rite as well as destroy the rug. Once the rig left the reservation to be hung on a wall, the incident was forgotten.
  19. Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 139-40
  20. George Mills, Navaho Art and Culture (Colorado Springs: The Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1959), 208. Although Navajo tradition views outsiders as a source of potential good, it can also work inversely.
  21. Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 127. This statement  is not accurate for Matthews and others had earlier been able to acquire a significant amount of information on ceremonies. She was one of the first white women to obtain data.
  22. Thompson to author, 5 March 1996.
  23. Additional indications of Klah’s progressive nature are: he chose an outsider, an Anglo woman, to assist him in his effort to perpetuate Navajo religion through the documentation of sandpaintings onto a two-dimensional surface and to record his oral legends onto paper. Even with this reproduction, he did not believe any disaster would befall him as did other singers. Additionally, he understood that placing his religious paraphernalia into a permanent home at the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Arts would be an additional preservation factor for Navajo culture.
  24. Eventually, the entire Newcomb family belonged to Klah’s Clan called Sith-I-Nee which translates into “Curve-in-the-Mountains.” The name is derived from Klah’s ownership of land extending from Newcomb Valley to the curve in the Chuska Mountains.
  25. Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 125-26. Klah’s assistance continued as he drew additional sandpaintings, some of which can be found in collections at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, and at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe.
  26. Wheelwright, Navajo Creation Myth, 13.
  27. William H. Lyon, “Gladys Reichard at the Frontiers of Navajo Culture,” American Indian Quarterly 8 (Spring 1989), 142. Lyon said that Newcomb supplied paintings for the Bush Collection between 1929-1936
  28. Babcock and Parezo, Daughters of the Desert, 15; Leland C. Wyman, Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Star and The Walcott Collection (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970), 30. Newcomb received another grant in 1938-1939 from the Huckell family and the Fred Harvey Co. to gather sandpaintings from the Bead Chant. Additionally, according to Wyman, the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1938 employed Newcomb to work with Navajo informants concerning the Walcott Collection.
  29. Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 156.
  30. Lyon, “Reichard,” 141. I cannot agree with Lyon that A.J. rarely supported Newcomb’s work. No matter how strong a personality she may have been, it would have been nearly impossible to maintain and juggle all of her responsibilities without A.J.’s assistiance.
  31. Lyon, “Reichard,” 142.
  32. Franc Johnson Newcomb to Mary Cabot Wheelwright, 3 June 1950, Mary Wheelwright Correspondence, box 13, msl-3, 1930-1957, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  33. Kathryn Gabriel, ed., Marietta Wetherill: Reflections on Life With The Navajos In Chaco Canyon (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992), 13. According to Gabriel, Newcomb’s peer, Marietta Wetherill, also had an exceptional memory which “was an attribute of the Victorian Age, especially for women.”
  34. Jo Allyn Archambault, “The Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial, An Examination of Patron-Client Relations” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1985), 29; Newcomb, Hosteen Klah, 62, 197; Thompson to author, 11 June 1996. The first Gallup Ceremonial was held in 1922 according to Archambault. Many traditional Navajo people waited to see if anything evil would befall the family for creating  permanent, but not totally accurate, reproductions (perfection is used only for healing). When nothing out of the ordinary occurred, many weavers felt reassured and began to make rugs with figures, but not reproductions of ceremonial paintings. According to Newcomb, these sandpainting rugs were nationally recognized by 1935. Thompson relates that the strongly opinionated Wheelwright became quite irate with Newcomb during her pregnancy with Priscilla saying, “You really don’t have time to have children.” Wheelwright never married and devoted much time and energy and finances to her passion for documenting Navajo religion and culture.
  35. Mary Cabot Wheelwright to Dr. Alfred Kidder, n.d., Mary Wheelwright Correspondence, box 13, msl-3, 1930-1957, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian Archive, Santa Fe. In addition to Newcomb, Wheelwright also collected information from Klah and other medicine men on the eastern part of the reservation, creating much competition between the two women.
  36. Louise Lamphere, “Gladys Reichard Among the Navajo,” Hidden Scholars, 172. Lamphere argues that both Reichard and Newcomb, friends as well as peers had impressions of Wheelwright which were somewhat less than favorable.
  37. Gladys A. Reichard, Navaho Religion A Study of Symbolism (Tucson: Arizona: University if Arizona Press, 1983).
  38. Lamphere, Hidden Scholars, 157-58.
  39. Franc Johnson Newcomb and Gladys A. Reichard, Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant (New YorkL J.J, Augustin Publisher, 1937). Franc Johnson Newcomb, Stanley Fisher, and Mary C. Wheelwright, A Study of Navajo Symbolism Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (Cambridge 32 (3), 1956).
  40. Mary C. Wheelwright, The Myth and Prayers of the Great Star Chant and the Myth of the Coyote Chant (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, 1956). Louise Stiver, “Fabric of Tradition: Navajo Blankets and the Louie Ewing Portfolio,” El Palacio 95 (January 1989), 61-63. Louie Ewing (1908-1983) was an art teacher and artist employed by the Works Project Administration, printing silkscreens from paintings. He worked for Kenneth Chapman, Curator at the Laboratory of Anthropology in 1940 and became widely known for his serigraphy.
  41. Mary C. Wheelwright, Emergence Myth According to the Hanelthnayhe or Upward-Reaching Rite Navajo Religion Series, vol. 3 (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, 1949).
  42. Franc Johnson Newcomb, “Navajo Cloud House Sandpainting,” New Mexico Folklore Record 4 (1950); “The Mountain Gods,” New Mexico Folklore Record 5 (1951). “The Arrow,” New Mexico Folklore Record 6 (1952).
  43. Leland C. Wyman to Mrs. Newcomb, 12 November 1954, Wyman Folder, Newcomb Pepers; Leland C. Wyman,Beautyway: A Navaho Ceremonial, Bollingen Series 53 (New York: Patheon Books, 1957); Leland C. Wyman to Mrs. Newcomb, 5 April 1959, Wyman Folder, Newcomb Papers.
  44. Leland C. Wyman, The Red Antway of the Navaho, Navajo Religion Series, col. 5 (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Museum of Navaho Ceremonial Art, Inc., 1973).
  45. Leland C. Wyman, Southwest Indian Drypainting (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research, 1983).
  46. The color and proportion had to remain the same as the original painting, or misfortune could have befallen Newcomb according to Priscilla.
  47. Franc Johnson Newcomb, “Symbols in Sand,” New Mexico 14 (December 1936), 37.
  48. Leland C. Wyman, Navajo Sandpaintings: The Huckel Collection (Colorado Springs: Taylor Museum, 1971), 24.
  49. For Poetic works, see: Newcomb, “Silver and Turquoise,” New Mexico 14 (July 1936), 31; “Nilth-Chizzie,” New Mexico 14 (October 1936), 24; “Yei-Ba-Chai Dancer,” Indians At Work 3 (1936),13; “Navajo Matins,” New Mexico15 (July 1937), 26; “The Navajo Chanter,” El Palacio 36 (January 1934), 111; “December,” New Mexico 26 (December 1948), 26.
  50. Newcomb, “Navajo Sand-Painting,” New Mexico 17 (July 1939), 24.
  51. Newcomb, Hosteen Klah; Newcomb, Navaho Neighbors; Newcomb, Navajo Omens and Taboos (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Rydal Express, 1940); Newcomb, Navajo Folk Tales (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Navajo Museum of Ceremonial Art, 1967); Newcomb, Navajo Bird Tales (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Book, 1970); Newcomb’s articles include: “Description Of The Symbolism Of A Sand-Painting Of The Sun,” Herbert J. Spinden ed., Fine Art And The First Americans (New York: Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, Inc., 1931), 8-9; “Doorways Face the Dawn,” New Mexico 12 (January 1934), 7, 40; “Mystic Medicine,” New Mexico 13 (August 1935), 22, 41; “Navaho Symbols of the Sun,” New Mexico Quarterly 6 (November 1936), 305-308; “Symbols in Sand,” New Mexico 14 (December 1936), 24-25, 37-38; “The Navajo Listening Rite,” El Palacio 45 (October 1938), 46-49; “Small Duck and the Four Stones,” New Mexico Magazine 16 (July 1938), 21, 44-45; “How The Navaho Adopt Rites,” El Palacio46 (February 1939), 25-27; Navajo Calendar,” New Mexico 18 (January 1940), 18-19, 32-34; “Origin Legend of the Navajo Eagle Chant,” Journal of American Folklore 53 (1940), 50-77; “The Price of a Horse,” New Mexico Quarterly Reveiew (13) (August 1943), 194-199; “‘Fire Lore’ in Navajo Legend and Ceremony,” New Mexico Folklore Record 3 (1948-1949), 3-9; “Fools’ Gold,” New Mexico Magazine 28 (November 1950), 20, 43-45. Collaborative articles include: Leland C. Wyman and Franc J. Newcomb, “Sandpaintings of Beautyway,” Plateau35 (2) 1962, 37-52; “Drypaintings Used in Divination by the Navajo,” Plateau 36 (1) 1963, 18-24.
  52. American Mothers Committee, “Franc Johnson Newcomb,” Mothers of Achievement in American History, 1776-1976 (Rutland, Bermont: C.E. Tuttle Co., 1976), 381-82.
  53. Newcomb, Navajo Neighbors, 42-52.
  54. “Franc J. Newcomb, Authoress, Dies here,” Albuquerque Journal, July 16, 1970.