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Franc Newcomb was born with a photographic memory and irrepressible energy, both of which enabled her to perform an invaluable service in the preservation of ancient Navaho rites and customs.
Arriving at Fort Defiance, Arizona, in 1912 to teach Navaho children for the U.S. Indian Service, she met Arthur Newcomb, a young trading post operator. They were married in 1914 and set off to live on the Navaho Reservation at the Blue Mesa Trading Post which Arthur had purchased. The post was located midway between Gallup and Shiprock, and is now known as Newcomb, New Mexico. It was in this remote location, where they lived for 21 years, that she was able to begin her unique work.
Franc seemed to have a natural affinity for and understanding of her Indian neighbors. She soon became their friend, and they allowed her to help them when they had minor illnesses or accidents, calling her Atsay-Ashon or Medicine Woman. There developed between Mrs. Newcomb and the Navaho a mutual trust and respect.
During the early years at Blue Mesa, the Newcombs became close friends of Hosteen Klah, chief Navaho medicine man. It was Klah who invited Franc to witness a Navaho sign. She was the first white woman ever admitted to such a ceremony.
Navaho sings are held for various reasons -- religious, medicinal, as well as social. During ceremonies, which last as long as seven days and nights, the chanter (medicine man) each morning produces a sandpainting, which is destroyed at sunset. Franc discovered that she could recall these sandpaintings and reproduce them in exact detail. At first, she was afraid to do so because it contradicted Navaho religious law. But when Klah discovered her ability, he encouraged her, after due consideration, because he recognized the importance of preserving these rites and rituals for future generations of his people. With so many Navaho children gone from the Reservation to government boarding schools, the opportunity to apprentice and train chanters was diminishing. Franc Newcomb represented a means of recording ancient Navaho rituals which would otherwise be lost.
Her method was to observe the ceremony during the day, committing every detail to memory. After sundown she reproduced the images on large pieces of cardboard, noting on the back their meaning and symbolism. With the help of Klah, who corrected her work, she eventually produced over 600 paintings, most of which still exist today.
A portion of her exceptional energy was devoted to the demands of daily life. She helped her husband run the trading post, raised two daughters, entertained visitors to the area (including the Crown Prince of Sweden in 1926), and continued to help the Indians and neighboring trader families when they needed her. She and her husband worked to develop new markets for Navaho crafts and originated the use of sandpainting symbols in rug patterns.
When Franc moved to Albuquerque in 1935 so that her daughters could attend school, she embarked on a writing and lecturing career about Navaho history, legend and culture. She published seven books and numerous articles, and contributed to the founding of the Museum of Navaho Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe. She was active in Albuquerque, serving as president of the Albuquerque Women's Club, and helped organize the Visiting Nurses Service.
Franc Newcomb, Navaho Neighbors, Norman, U of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
Franc Newcomb with Gladys A. Reichard, Sandpaintings of the Navaho Shooting Chant, N.Y., J.J. Augustin, Publisher, 1937.
Interview of Mrs. Priscilla Thompson, daughter of Franc Newcomb, done by Peggy Winkworth, Albuquerque Branch, AAUW.
"Mrs. Newcomb Dies at 83," New Mexican, Aug. 9, 1970.
News clippings from Albuquerque Journal and Tribune, Albuquerque Public Library, Main Branch, Southwest Room, file on Franc Newcomb.
History | Women's History
American Association of University Women-New Mexico. "Franc Johnson Newcomb." (1976). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/nm_women_aauw/11