The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb

by Patricia Fogelman Lange

Patricia Fogelman Lange has a Ph.D in Art and Culture from New York University. She was a Research Curator for The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers and is currently a Research Associate at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe.

Eight months after New Mexico attained statehood in 1912, Franc Lynette (née Johnson) Newcomb (1887-1970), an Anglo-American, came west by railroad to teach the Navajo Indian boarding school in Fort Defiance, Arizona. She became known as an Indian trader’s wife and was eventually recognized within academic circles as a scholar and writer on Navajo religious ceremonials. Newcomb’s documentation of Navajo art and culture—writing, lecturing, or reproducing ritual sandpaintings onto a two-dimensional painted surface—made a significant impact on Southwestern studies.

Although Newcomb’s name has been linked with other women anthropologists intrigued by the “otherness” of the Southwest’s indigenous people, little has been written about her. Newcomb’s career was shaped and etched by her experiences living on the Navajo Reservation, but her accomplishments remain relatively marginalized.1 The purpose of this paper is to unfold Franc Johnson Newcomb’s life, fieldwork, creativity, and numerous written contributions to Southwestern anthropological and ethnographic literature.

Newcomb was born in 1887 and grew up in the small Wisconsin town of Tunnel City.2 The youngest child of a working-class family, she was named after her father Frank Lewis Johnson, an architect who died when she was three years old. Her father sometimes called her Frances or Frankie, but she later changed her name to Frances (although she signed Franc on much of her work). After her father’s death, her mother, Priscilla Woodard Johnson, taught school to support her three young children—Ella, Raymond, and Franc. Her mother died ten years later. Apparently, Franc developed a strong sense of self from her mother to the extent that she and her older sister, Ella, continued with their education, attending a Normal School, which was equivalent of a teacher’s college. This enabled then to obtain teaching positions paying a meager fifteen dollars per month while living with a nearby German family.

A distant relative named “Auntie” Davenport, teaching in Wagon Mound, New Mexico, wrote and encouraged these strong, adventuresome young women to embrace the sparseness of the West. They followed in the footsteps of others who harbored romantic fantasies of traveling to the Wild West, which as art historian Patricia Trenton wrote:

In contrast to the East, the West was unhampered by tradition and social hierarchy. Western women thus had more freedom than their Eastern counterparts in almost every sphere of creative endeavor, and they pushed the boundaries of their gender farther at a more rapid rate.3

Perhaps the sisters thought the West offered a wonderful opportunity to experience this freedom and to earn a sufficient income. They passed civil service licensing exams permitting Ella to receive a teaching position in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Franc in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Franc arrived in Gallup, New Mexico on a hot 12 August 1912 to her new home where she taught primary grades at the nearby Fort Defiance Navajo boarding school. Directly outside the gate of Fort Defiance stood a Catholic Church and two trading posts. One was a long white store with a red warehouse owned by the traders Lew and Clara Sabin, while on the other side of the road stood a grey stone building managed by Arthur John Newcomb, or A.J., as he was affectionately known.

It was here that Franc Johnson and A.J. Newcomb met and would marry in less than two years. A.J. (1891-1948) had come west from Des Moines, Iowa with his two older brothers Earle and Charlie between 1910 and 1911.4 After Franc and A.J. became acquainted, they uncovered a mutual sense of humor and similar attraction to Navajo culture, as well as a fascination with sandpaintings—the ritual designs singers or medicine men created with colored sand during healing ceremonies.5 Their compatibility blossomed into a relationship, but, as was common practice at this time, her teaching contract forbade marriage.

Franc Johnson Newcomb on “Billy” (A.J.’s horse), 1913-1914. She was a fine horsewoman. Photography courtesy of Priscilla Newcomb Thompson.

In the winter of 1913-1914, the Newcomb’s obtained half interest in the Blue Point Trading Post from the Manning and Maple Wholesale Company in Gallup.6 A.J. was the youngest man to qualify (twenty-two years old at the time) for a post placing him at the bottom of the list held by C.C. Manning as part of an arrangement to relocate men to the Southwest. As a result, he received the most inaccessible and primitive post on the Navajo Reservation with brother Earle as his assistant.7 The Blue Pont Trading Post was located fifty-two miles north of Gallup, seventy-two miles south of Farmington, and approximately six miles southeast of the region known as Two Grey Hills.8 Roads in the area were impassable during inclement weather and under optimum conditions; Gallup was a three to five day wagon trip. It was a stark environment to which inhabitants learned to adjust. Today, the paved main road remains remote and isolated yet hauntingly beautiful. With Franc’s financial assistance, A.J. renovated the post, adding a new roof and cement floor for the trade room and living quarters.

After their marriage in June 1914, the wagon ride between Fort Definance and the post located on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Reservation served as their honeymoon trip. Without gas, electricity, or running water, desert life was simple but harsh. As the post became the central hub of their surrounding Navajo community, the Newcombs became cultural mediators between their neighbors and the outside world.

Franc Newcomb assumed the typical role of a hard-working trader’s wife, and by the summer of 1915, their many invited, as well as uninvited visitors, created a need for additional rooms beyond their original quarters.9 Her responsibilities increased as she provided food and facilities for travelers, whether o horseback or in chauffeured touring cars. Over time, prominent guests such as European royalty and government officials visited the post. One such couple was Mr. and Mrs. King C. Gillette of the Gillette Razor Company who, with a group of friends en route to Mesa Verde National Park, dropped in between 1919-1920. When they saw the “Whirling Log” rug that Navajo leader Hosteen Klah was weaving, they immediately wished to purchase it. A.J. convinced them to wait several months so it could be displayed in the upcoming Navajo Ceremonial in Gallup. Mrs. Gillette was so pleased with the rug that she ordered two more.10 At another time, Newcomb received an unexpected visit from the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Louisa in 1926. Franc was notified on morning by a reporter that the prince and his retinue of twenty would be at the post in two hours for lunch. Indicative of her ability to handle a difficult situation, she prepared a fine meal on short notice served on her best tableware.11 On yet another occasion, in response to a government request from officials in Washington, D.C., the Newcombs provided escort services to a Navajo ceremony, as well as sleeping accommodations for a British Lord and Lady.12 Busy working as the post and providing for the needs of guests, the energetic Newcomb gave birth to daughter Lynette in 1918, followed by Priscilla in 1923.

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 previous 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

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

The Newcombs’ Navajo neighbors in front of the Post Office in Newcomb, New Mexico. From left to right: Hosteen Klah, Hozhun Hatile, his mother and father, and an assistant. Photograph courtesy of The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers.

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

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

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.