Inventing Mary Wheelwright
A museum founder’s legacy
In the 1920s and ’30s, many Anglos believed that the United States government would wipe out all traces of Indian culture within a generation or two. Some well-intentioned, often wealthy individuals felt duty-bound to document and preserve elements of Native culture in order to educate people in the future about the nation’s past — so they set about recording indigenous language, song, and ceremony, and collecting ceremonial objects, art, and household goods for display in museums. Some were trained anthropologists and some, like Mary Cabot Wheelwright, a spinster from the Boston gentry, were self-taught.
Wheelwright developed an abiding passion for the Southwest after a family vacation to Santa Fe when she was a child. She later came to New Mexico for camping trips with cowboy guides. Through Frances and Arthur Newcomb, who owned a trading post in Nava, between Gallup and Shiprock, she met a Navajo medicine man and artist named Hastiin Klah, who became a close friend and collaborator on cultural preservation efforts. Wheelwright subsequently developed such an abiding interest in Navajo religious customs that she made it her life’s work to establish a museum dedicated to preserving them. Now known as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, it was co-founded with Klah in 1937 as the House of Navajo Religion, a subject deemed academically unserious by the anthropologists of the day. In Mary
Wheelwright: Her Book, a biography by Leatrice A. Armstrong recently published by the Wheelwright Museum, it is made clear that Wheelwright had no patience for those with such a limited point of view.
“Mary was a Unitarian, and I think that’s what allowed her to have a more open approach to religion and spirituality,” Armstrong told Pasatiempo. “I don’t think Hastiin Klah saw her in a threatening fashion because she convinced him that she was just curious about what he believed. She was immersed in the necessity of understanding that religion played an important role in Navajo day-to-day life, which the men at the Laboratory of Anthropology just didn’t understand.”
The Laboratory of Anthropology, which is now part of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, was the original intended home for Wheelwright’s museum. It was only after a protracted battle with the laboratory about the museum’s purpose that Wheelwright ultimately chose to withdraw her financial gift and independently establish her museum. (Though it is located on Museum Hill, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian remains independent and is not part of the New Mexico museum system.) The lab was considered a scientific endeavor, and Wheelwright had no formal education. She was also seen as eccentric and difficult; her Boston Brahmin accent and imperious bearing were off-putting to the lab’s trustees. “Not all of them were anthropologists by trade, and many of them were more than a little cruel with their comments about Mary,” Armstrong said.
It is perhaps fitting that Wheelwright’s life story was not written by a career biographer. Armstrong, who is originally from Ohio, moved to Santa Fe in 1994. Soon after, she began volunteering at the Wheelwright Museum, which eventually led to a 20-year career at