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Fascination with Navajo religion fuels biography

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mary Cabot Wheelwright was rich, demanding and quite likely a snob.

But this Boston Brahmin who camped in the New Mexico desert, rode sidesaddle through the mountains and eschewed alcohol boasted a mind as open as the Southwestern skies. She was a good sport, and she drank tea.

The namesake of Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian left no known journals or diaries behind when she died in 1958. That absence may have been a factor in the dearth of information on the woman who devoted her adulthood to an understanding of Navajo spiritual life. She served as a trustee of various New Mexico institutions and funded projects for museums throughout the state.

Journey begins

Twenty-year Wheelwright Museum veteran Leatrice Armstrong has finally completed the first biography of Wheelwright – “Mary Cabot Wheelwright: Her Book” (Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, $55, 2016) – a project that has consumed her since 1998. The book has been printed in a limited edition of 1,500 copies and is available in the museum’s Case Trading Post.

Armstrong spent years digging through correspondence at the Wheelwright, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Boston’s Massachusetts Historical Society, Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University piecing together the puzzle who was Mary.

What emerged was a woman of contradictions; the only child of an attorney and shipping magnate heir who never married because she “never met a man strong enough” for her.

It was a privileged but lonely childhood, her education provided by governesses, her religion Unitarian. She embraced the hardships of travel, like getting stuck in a muddy arroyo, but proved unforgiving of her friends’ shortcomings.

“Ideally, she would have gotten married and had a child and perpetuated the family legacy,” Armstrong said. “But she just didn’t fall into that mold.”

Wheelwright first arrived in New Mexico in 1914, after a trip to the Grand Canyon. A stop at the trading post run by Arthur and Frances Newcomb changed her life. It was there she met Navajo medicine man Hastiin Klah. Frances Newcomb (known as “Franc”) expressed her fears that Native spirituality and customs would disappear due to both genocide and assimilation.

Wheelwright “never felt they should all accept Christianity and be assimilated,” Armstrong said. “And she wanted them to succeed on their own.”

“Both of her parents are deceased,” Armstrong continued. “She had a little money, although it was controlled by her male cousins.”

Klah was a ritual singer who began talking about Navajo ceremonials.

Wheelwright began writing down Klah’s stories and songs with the help of a translator.

“She would take down transcripts,” Armstrong said. “Then she used an Edison wax cylinder recorder. People did make fun of her because she wrote things phonetically.”

Wheelwright eventually amassed enough information to merit a repository. But an initial deal with the Laboratory of Anthropology fell through. Board members dismissed both her and her interests as frivolous, tied to mysticism and the occult.

Dreaming big

In 1937, Wheelwright hired painter William Penhallow Henderson as the architect for her museum.

“Once she locked into this idea, she was tenacious,” Armstrong said. “She put up with a lot from the guys at the Laboratory of Anthropology through years of negotiating with them.”

As times and social attitudes changed and adjusted, so did the museum.

In 1939, the name was changed from the House of Navajo Religion to the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art.

In 1976, it became the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Board members voluntarily repatriated ceremonial items to the tribe. The museum expanded beyond history into contemporary Native art.

“I don’t think it was all for naught,” Armstrong said of its original goal of preserving a religion that survives today.”There are still ceremonial guys who come to the museum to hear the recordings of the chants.”

Wheelwright died at her summer home in Maine in 1958.

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