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Museum Lauds Wheelwright on Anniversary

SANTA FE, N.M. — Mary Cabot Wheelwright was a Boston blue blood drawn to a constellation of cultures: Native American, Spanish Colonial and European antiquities.

“A Certain Fire: Mary Cabot Wheelwright Collects the Southwest” showcases that vast reach by focusing on Wheelwright’s contributions to Santa Fe area museums, as well as her own. The exhibit features textiles, metal work, wood carving and pottery from the city’s premier institutions, including the School for Advanced Research, the Museum of International Folk Art and others. The exhibition marks the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian’s 75th anniversary.

The collection includes a circa 1865 Comanche parfleche of paint and hide used for storage, as well as a circa 1850 San Ildefonso jar. An 1855 embroidered manta came from Acoma Pueblo. A scrapbook once owned by Wheelwright’s friend Franc (Francis) Newcomb contains illustrations of Navajo weaver and medicine man Hastiin Klah demonstrating sand painting at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.

If you go
WHAT: “A Certain Fire: Mary Cabot Wheelwright Collects the Southwest,” a 75th anniversary exhibition.
WHEN: Members’ preview 5-7 p.m. Saturday. Through April 14, 2013.
WHERE: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo, Museum Hill COST: Admission free; donations appreciated.
CONTACT: 982-4636 or

When Wheelwright founded the museum in 1937, it was as the House of Navajo Religion, designed to create a repository for materials fostering the study and practice of Navajo ceremonials. With the help of Klah and various scholars, artists and collectors, she filled her museum with weaving, artworks, archives and items chosen to preserve one of the world’s great spiritual traditions.

Her efforts took five years.

“The boys at the Laboratory (of Anthropology) didn’t like her,” said the Wheelwright’s Lea Armstrong, who is writing a biography of the founder to be published next year. “She did not have a college education. She wasn’t a scientist. Some of them said she was just interested in mysticism and the occult.”

Wheelwright had offered to build a Navajo hogan on the Lab’s Rockefeller-funded property. When the board rejected her, she sold some of her father’s land to fund the museum atop property donated by her friend Amelia Elizabeth White of SAR. White had known Wheelwright from her work with various organizations, including the Indian Arts Fund, the Society for Spanish Colonial Art and the New Mexico Historical Society.

“She was everywhere,” Armstrong said, emphasizing Wheelwright’s perseverance.

“Most people would have given up when the Lab said, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.'”

Wheelwright was born into a wealthy family built on shipping money. Her two great-grandfathers were commission agents; her maternal grandfather built his fortune on the “triple trade” – slavery, sugar and rum. He also built the first trading outpost in China, where he imported silks and opium.

“Her mother and an uncle were good friends with Thoreau and Emerson,” Armstrong said.

An only child, Wheelwright came to New Mexico to visit her friend Carol Stanley sometime after her mother’s death in 1917. Stanley and her husband owned and operated the San Gabriel Dude Ranch near Alcalde. A cowboy who worked there described Wheelwright as “a proper Boston lady in a riding skirt and a veiled, broad-brimmed hat.” She camped and rode horses with the rest of the crew, but she slept on linen sheets and stopped for tea each day at four.

Wheelwright took a car to the Navajo Reservation, where she stayed at the old Newcomb Trading Post between Gallup and Shiprock. She befriended owner Arthur Newcomb’s wife Franc (Francis), who was passionately interested in Navajo ceremonialism. Franc Newcomb convinced Wheelwright — a Unitarian who had long been interested in comparative religions — to study the field. She introduced Wheelwright to tribal medicine man and weaver Klah, who was born in 1867. It was a time when most Navajo people were being held as prisoners of war by the U.S. government. As Navajo children were forced into boarding schools, punished for speaking their language and forced to adopt Christianity, the future of their traditional religious practice looked bleak.

But Wheelwright was hooked. She was determined to create a permanent record of Navajo ritual knowledge.

“At this time, the number of ceremonies the Navajo could have had had been decimated,” Armstrong said. “There was a fear that all this could be lost. She had time. She had money. She could do this.”

After Wheelwright convinced Klah of her sincerity, he taught her the Navajo creation stories and introduced her to ceremonials. He produced mammoth tapestries as permanent records of sand paintings.

Realizing she needed a place to live, Wheelwright bought the 19th-century territorial adobe home Los Luceros near Alcalde in 1923. While she never stayed there full time, she came to New Mexico each spring and fall, studying and collecting with Klah’s help. Determined to create a museum, she recorded Klah’s chants and ceremonial songs. Klah blessed the building in 1937.

“When the Laboratory (of Anthropology) was opened, it was on the front page of the New Mexican,” Armstrong said. “When there was a house blessing (for the Wheelwright), it was on the society page.”

In 1977, the museum’s board of trustees voted to repatriate several Navajo medicine bundles and other items to the Navajo people, who now maintain them at the Ned A. Hatathli Cultural Center Museum at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Ariz. To mark the event, the museum changed its name to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Today it focuses its exhibits on historic and contemporary Native American art.

Wheelwright traveled the world and died in her family home in Maine in 1958 at the age of 79. She never married.

“There’s all kinds of speculation” as to why she remained single, Armstrong said.

A Navajo musicologist said Wheelwright offered her own explanation: “She’d never met a man strong enough for her.”

“She was very strong-willed and independent,” Armstrong said. “She didn’t have to.”

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