A historical preservationist has made it her personal mission to preserve the Winslow Indian Cemetery in Winslow, Arizona, but doing so may not be in line with traditional Navajo and Hopi beliefs, reports The Associated Press.
There are about 600 people buried there and Gail Sadler, a child welfare worker, has dedicated herself to identifying them. When she first discovered the cemetery in 2008, she found it in shambles—liquor bottles, roofing shingles and a washing machine were strewn about and a barbed wire fence surrounded it.
“If anyone is searching for family, I don’t want these little ones to be lost,” she told The Associated Press.
But she is Mormon, and her Mormon beliefs are not the same as traditional Navajo beliefs about death as something rarely discussed, and Navajo and Hopi tradition about not visiting burial sites.
Sadler has identified some 543 names of people buried there, and has published the list in local papers. She also attends local events and festivals where she talks about it with locals.
AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca
This July 9, 2014 photo shows Gail Sadler standing amid broken crosses in the Winslow Indian Cemetery 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.
Traditional Navajos have warned her to stop, reports The Associated Press. “If you talk about death, you’re in a sense luring death to come to you,” Paul Begay told the AP. He learned about his Navajo culture and history from his father and grandfather, both medicine men.
Hopi burials are private and happen with a day of a person’s passing, which allows the physical and spiritual journey to begin, reports the AP. Hopis also don’t revisit the burial site.
“We allow nature to take its course, and the spirit has journeyed already,” Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe’s cultural preservation office, told the AP. He said talking about a deceased person isn’t frowned upon. “When you remember your people, you recognize that spiritually they are still with us.”
The cemetery has been linked to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the early 1930s that finally became the Winslow Indian Health Care Center. Natives who walked on there were taken to the cemetery, as well as stillborn babies and malnourished Natives from the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
Sadler was able to get a simple black iron fence installed to replace the barbed wire fence in April. She is still fundraising to build a monument.
Her work has started discussion among Native families.
Sylvia John, 63, realized only five years ago she had a brother who walked on as a toddler. John’s brother is buried at the Winslow Indian Cemetery.
“I’m just wanting to go there to the cemetery and look for him,” John told the AP.