In­vent­ing Mary Wheel­wright

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - The New Mex­i­can Jen­nifer Levin

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.