The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian was founded in 1937 by Mary Cabot Wheelwright. Born into a wealthy Boston family, Wheelwright traveled widely and had a lifelong interest in the study of religions. Her collaborator in the establishment of the museum was Hastiin Klah, an esteemed and influential Navajo singer, or “medicine man.” Klah was born in 1867, when most of Navajo people were held as prisoners of war by the United States government.
Wheelwright and Klah were introduced in 1921 by Arthur and Frances Newcomb, who lived on the Navajo reservation, operating a trading post near Klah’s home, about 50 miles north of Gallup, New Mexico. By 1921 Klah had witnessed decades of relentless efforts by the United States government and by missionaries to assimilate the Navajo people into mainstream society. Children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their language and forced to adopt Christianity. To Klah, the future of traditional Navajo religious practice appeared bleak, and the opportunity to collaborate with a sympathetic outsider such as Wheelwright was appealing.