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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 6, 2004 - Issue 108


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Sandpaintings provide glimpse into extinct Navajo ceremonies

by Marley Shebala - The Navajo Times
credits: Harry Walters, director of Ned Hatathli Museum at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz., shows one of 900 sandpaintings drawn by Franc Lynette Newcomb during the 1920's and 30's Monday. Total value of the sandpaintings is $2.5 million. (Photo special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Harry Walters, director of Ned Hatathli Museum at Dine College in Tsaile, Ariz., shows one of 900 sandpaintings drawn by Franc Lynette Newcomb during the 1920's and 30's Monday. Total value of the sandpaintings is $2.5 million. (Photo special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)TSAILE, Ariz. - A Navajo prayer welcomed home from Santa Fe about 900 sandpaintings worth about $2.5 million last Tuesday.

Diné College museum curator Harry Walters, who greeted the sacred art last Tuesday, said the collection of sandpaintings, which were made in the 1920s and 1930s, include artwork from Navajo ceremonies that are extinct.

Walters, who started working to obtain the collection two years ago, named ceremonies such as the Eagle Way, Water Way, Upward Reaching Way, Red Ant Way, Big Star Way, Shooting Way, Mountain Shooting Way, Bead Way, Hail Way and Plume Way.

He said Martin Sacks, a wealthy businessman he knew for many years, told him about four or five years ago that he was thinking about giving his sandpainting collection to Diné College.

Walters said that since Sacks was so wealthy, he could buy traditional native items from the black market, which is where he probably obtained the sandpainting collection.

He said Sacks routinely returned cultural pieces to their original tribes.
Walters remembered Sacks telling him that he could give the sandpainting collection to any museum but that Diné College would bring it back to life.

Walters said that even though the sandpaintings were done by an Anglo woman - Franc Lynette Newcomb, the wife of trading post owner A.J. Newcomb - they are still sacred images.

He said that in the future the Newcomb sandpaintings will be valuable because they will be the only thing for Navajo children to fall back on if they want to know their culture.

Walters said the Navajo people are entering a new phase that involves young people understanding their culture - but only according to Western society.

He said that means they tend to be afraid of something like this - sandpaintings of extinct Navajo ceremonies.

And young people often hear stories that items such as these carry negative elements, he said.

"These (sandpaintings) were done in ceremony," he said. "The negative part comes when someone doesn't know anything and messes with it disrespectfully."

Walters said Franc Newcomb did the sandpaintings under the guidance of Navajo medicine man Hosteen Klah.

He said Franc Newcomb learned to speak fluent Navajo and became close friends with the Navajo people, especially Klah.

According to a paper on Franc Johnson Newcomb by Patricia Fogelman Lange, Klah conducted several ceremonies including the Night Way, Chiricahua Wind Way and Hail Way.

Lange wrote that Klah had been concerned for years because fewer Navajo children were becoming medicine man apprentices because of 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," she reported.

Lange stated that Klah, who was in his 50s, had no apprentice when he met Franc Newcomb.

She said Klah was distressed that his life might end without transferring his knowledge to a successor and when he noticed Franc Newcomb's intense fascination with Navajo ceremonies, he decided to make her his student.

Franc Newcomb, who was then 30, had to be purified in a Blessing Way ceremony, stated Lange.

"When her (Franc Newcomb) middle class 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," Lange reported.

Lange said Klah and Franc Newcomb collaborated on sandpaintings she drew and painted on paper and illustration board.

Franc Newcomb described her first attempt at sandpainting: "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, crossed logs, tall corn, and medicine bags."

Lange stated that after Franc Newcomb recovered from a bout with the flu, Klah decided to have a blessing chant over her because he believed that her illness resulted from her exposure to ceremonies and powerful prayers.

She reported, "When word of this ceremony over a white woman spread throughout the reservation, Newcomb believed 'from that time on I was regarded as a member of the Navaho 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.'"

Lange said that Newcomb's daughter Priscilla told about the time her mother was recovering from a prolonged illness and a group of Navajo medicine men traveled to her sick bed in Albuquerque to talk with her about her understanding of a vanishing Navajo ceremony.

Walters added that the college has individuals who are medicine people and knowledgeable about how to use the sandpaintings.

The sandpaintings may not be used in classrooms but they will be a reference and resource, he said.

Walters said he will be looking over the collection and learning more about traditional Navajo sandpaintings and ceremonies.

He said young Navajos who are apprentices of medicine men can learn what sandpaintings are.

Young Navajo students who are working on their dissertations and degrees and faculty and staff can use the sandpaintings as references and resources, he said.

He said other museums would probably just put the sandpaintings in storage and never use them.

Walters said the college museum is being renovated and the expected completion date is sometime this summer.

The 900 sandpaintings, which arrived in four crates that were 4 feet long, 2 feet wide and two feet high, were placed in a secure vault.

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