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Woman unearths past of forgotten Indian cemetery

Friday - 8/29/2014, 7:29am  ET

This July 9, 2014 photo shows Navajo archaeologist Kim Mangum picking up a wooden cross at a cemetery in Winslow, Arizona. Local historic preservation Commissioner Gail Sadler has made it her mission to unearth the identities of roughly 600 people buried there and help their descendants reconnect with a lost part of their history. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

FELICIA FONSECA
Associated Press

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 dating back to the 1930s 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 Commission.

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 to 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 would flip on the light and get to work.

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.

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