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Updated Aug 29, 2014 - 4:59 pm

Woman unearths past of forgotten Arizona Indian cemetery

This July 9, 2014 photo shows Gail Sadler standing amid broken crosses in a pauper's grave in Winslow, Arizona. The local historic preservation commissioner 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)

WINSLOW, Ariz. -- 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.

"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 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.

"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 said.

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

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 history.

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.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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