Arizona woman’s effort to identify 542 in pauper’s grave in Indian cemeteryFelicia Fonseca, Associated Press 11:06 a.m. MST November 30, 2015
(Photo: Felicia Fonseca/AP)
FLAGSTAFF — An Arizona woman has completed a painstaking project to identify people buried in a once-neglected pauper’s grave made up primarily of Navajo children who died of tuberculosis and other illnesses decades ago.
Gail Sadler spent about 1,200 hours going through thousands of death certificates from 1932 to 1962 to create an index. She found that 542 people were laid to rest at the Winslow Indian Cemetery, once tied to a tuberculosis sanatorium a half-mile away. The overwhelming majority were Navajo and under the age of 3.
“So many people I talked to didn’t know they had brothers or sisters buried there that were born before they were,” she said. “Just to have the information makes them feel they honored the memory better, or at least to know it was real.”
Sadler’s next goal is to secure enough money for a granite memorial plaque bearing the cemetery’s name. A separate metal sign will have a brief history of the cemetery and a code that can be scanned to see the names of the dead, their ages, the names of their parents and hometowns.
The barren cemetery sits just off Interstate 40 and long had been used as a dumping ground or a place for local teenagers to hang out on Halloween. Hardly anyone in the small city of Winslow knew its history.
Sadler’s interest came in 2008 after being appointed to the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission. She crawled through an old barbed wire fence and saw the ground littered with liquor bottles, roofing shingles and a washing machine. Broken wooden crosses and the few grave markers that were left didn’t provide much insight.
In the years since, the commission organized cleanups of the cemetery, raised money for a simple black iron fence and put up a double cross that is a symbol of the fight against tuberculosis.
The city chipped in financially. Navajo County pledged $1,000 for the metal sign.
Navajo County Supervisor Jesse Thompson, who is Navajo and lived in Winslow as a child, said the index is a good way to show relatives of those buried there that their loved ones have been taken care of and shown respect.
“This is a project that needs to happen, and it does impact a lot of people,” he said.
Still, Sadler doesn’t expect many visitors. Navajo and Hopi tradition teaches that burial sites should be avoided.
Sadler herself was warned to avoid the pursuit of the dead or risk inviting evil spirits. But the soft-spoken child welfare worker says she was moved by a “sweet spirit” to continue her work.
Sadler recently approached the Navajo Nation for the $10,000 needed for a 5-by-8 granite memorial and said she got a welcome reception. She took several copies of the index with her, sparking interest from people who were able to identify people they knew.
“It really hit home quickly how small a world it is,” she said.
Sadler has spent nights and weekends scouring death certificates, sometimes obsessing over the index. The most recent reference she found to the Indian cemetery was in 1961 with the burial of a Navajo girl who was stillborn. Until 1960, American Indians weren’t allowed to be buried in the nearby Desert View Cemetery, she said.
While the index is complete and posted on the Historic Preservation Commission’s website, Sadler’s interest isn’t completely quelled. She plans to continue working on the project “to make sure there are no anomalies” with the names.