Established in 1937, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian was originally constructed to document the rich cultural history of the Navajo people. Founders Mary Cabot Wheelwright, Hastiin Klah, and Arthur Newcomb set about recording traditional Navajo songs and stories. The three documented the Navajo creation story and many other stories of religious significance. The Museum building was constructed to house these recordings and to house works of Navajo art. In 1977, the museum repatriated much of its collection back to the Navajo people. While it continues to house many Navajo artifacts dating to the mid-1800’s, the museum’s focus now extends to all Native American peoples. Much of the museum’s current focus is modern works of art, made by Native American artists that display the unique culture and heritage of Native Americans.
Mary Cabot Wheelwright had a passion for religions. In her travels, she was introduced to Hastiin Klah, a Navajo singer by Arthur and Frances Newcomb.1 Klah feared that his people’s religion and traditions would be lost because of missionary efforts and actions of the U.S. government. The group set out to record Navajo oral histories, the creation story, and songs of religious or cultural significance.2 A large collection soon developed, which included works other than recordings. The group had also collected manuscripts, paintings and sand paintings. In order for the collection to be preserved, a building needed to be constructed.
Constructed in 1937 for the purpose of housing the collection the Museum was designed, by architect William Penhallow Henderson, after a traditional Navajo dwelling called a hooghan. The build underwent a traditional Navajo blessing. The museum was called by several names before being named the name Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art.3
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Navajo Nation expressed desires to control its own history and religious traditions. In 1977, the museum became the first North American museum to repatriate sensitive cultural artifacts back to native peoples.4 The Museum now focuses on telling the story of Native Americans by exhibiting works by modern Native artists. Expanding beyond the Navajo the Museum also features artifacts from other Native groups, especially those from the Southwest.5 The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is the oldest private, non-profit museum in New Mexico.6 It is also on the National Register of Historic Places.