Woman IDs dead, learns about Native beliefs


WINSLOW, Ariz. (AP) — A dusty, barren field in the shadow of a busy Arizona interstate was for decades a
place where children played freely, teenagers spooked themselves on Halloween and locals dumped trash,
seemingly unaware of the history beneath them.

Inside cotton sacks, burlap bags and blankets buried in the ground are the remains of stillborn babies,
tuberculosis patients, and sick and malnourished Native Americans from Winslow and the nearby Navajo and
Hopi reservations.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to know where each grave, some just 18 inches deep, is located at the
Winslow Indian Cemetery. The aluminum plates and crosses that once marked them were trampled on, washed
away or carried off.

It was no place to mourn, thought local historical preservationist Gail Sadler, before she made it her
mission to unearth the identities of the roughly 600 people buried there and help their descendants
reconnect with their history.

"If anyone is searching for family, I don’t want these little ones to be lost," said the
soft-spoken child welfare worker.

What she learned, however, was that not everyone wanted to reconnect.

Her Mormon belief about the value of knowing one’s ancestry suddenly came up against traditional Navajo
beliefs about death as something one rarely discusses, and Navajo and Hopi tradition about not visiting
burial sites.

Some warned her that she risked inviting evil spirits if she continued her pursuit of the dead.

Sadler, 58, said she was both heartbroken — and appalled — at the condition of the cemetery when she
first laid eyes on it in 2008, soon after she had been appointed to the Winslow Historic Preservation

On her first visit, she climbed through a barbed wire fence and found liquor bottles, roofing shingles
and a washing machine. She wondered if a hole in the corner meant someone was trying to dig a fresh
grave or dig up an old one.

She said she was moved by a "sweet spirit" and a desire restore respect and dignity to the
burial ground, with a better security fence and a monument. "It just struck me that it was going to
need a champion or nothing would be done," she said.

The cemetery was an afterthought in Winslow, a railroad city on the edge of the Navajo and Hopi
reservations that was immortalized in 1972 by the Eagles’ song, "Take it Easy," with the
lyrics: "Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona."

In the early 1930s, the land where the cemetery is was tied to a tuberculosis sanatorium that broadened
its patient base and finally became the Winslow Indian Health Care Center.

Native Americans who died there were taken the half-mile to the cemetery and largely forgotten over time.

Finding out who was buried there became Sadler’s main fundraising tool to get a more secure fence built.
With the names of only a few dozen that she gathered from a former commissioner, she said city officials
initially were hesitant to contribute to the cause.

Her mission quickly became an obsession. On nights after work and on weekends, Sadler would go online and
scour death certificates — some 8,800 from 1932 to 1962 — looking for the Indian Cemetery as the final
resting place.

Sadler then would painstakingly enter each detail into a spreadsheet, from parents’ names to birthplaces
to causes of death.

Her project also kept her up at night. Lying restless in her bed, she would slip out of the blankets and
walk barefoot in the dark to a corner bedroom set up as an office. She’d flip on the light and get to

She would imagine the stories and the faces of the people she read about.

Sadler struggled with reading about a mother who died in labor, along with her newborn. The placenta
preceded the child, and the mother hemorrhaged. Sadler experienced hemorrhaging in successfully
delivering one of her own children.

"I shed more than one tear, especially when I would see the same mother, several times over the
years burying a baby there. It just melted my heart," said Sadler, who has eight children in a
blended family, and 17 grandchildren.

So far, she has found at least 543 names of people buried at the cemetery, and publicized her index in
local papers and at the "Standing on the Corner" festival and others that attracted townsfolk,
tourists and Navajo and Hopi tribal members.

Sadler was met with blank stares, raised eyebrows and warnings not to press forward with her work when
she spoke with traditional Navajos, whose culture teaches that death is not something to dwell on and
that burial sites should be avoided.

"If you talk about death, you’re in a sense luring death to come to you," said Paul Begay,
whose knowledge of Navajo culture and history was passed down through his father and grandfather, both
medicine men.

Burials of Hopi generally are private and occur within a day of a person’s death to allow the physical
and spiritual journey of a person to begin simultaneously. Once a person is buried, Hopis don’t revisit
the burial site.

"We allow nature to take its course, and the spirit has journeyed already," said Leigh
Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe’s cultural preservation office, but talking about a deceased person
isn’t frowned upon.

"When you remember your people, you recognize that spiritually they are still with us," he

In April, Sadler accomplished one of her goals: A simple black iron fence replaced the barbed wire fence
at the cemetery, paid for by donations and the city. She still is seeking funds to build a monument to
those who were buried there.

Her index, however, continues to inspire discussions among Native American families, unearthing lost

Sylvia John, 63, found out five years ago that she had a brother who died after a fall as a toddler. She
asked her mother about him after seeing him in old family photos but didn’t push for more details in
deference to her traditional Navajo beliefs.

On a recent day, they took a break from a quilting class and flipped through photos of the chubby-cheeked
toddler wearing a western shirt, sitting on his mother’s lap and standing next to his father.

Only then did John, who is Mormon, ask her 89-year-old mother where her brother was buried.

At the Winslow Indian Cemetery, she said. His name is on the first page of Sadler’s index.

"I’m just wanting to go there to the cemetery and look for him," Sylvia John said.

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