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Reflections in the Silver Cup

FORGOTTEN CEMETERY

The brick that kept me searching

As my brother Rick and I sat by my campfire at Quaking Aspen, I mentioned that I planned to explore and take photos at the old Ft. Wingate school the next day. He told me there was a small cemetery to the east of the school and thought I might like to try to find it. He said it was a graveyard used to bury some of Pancho Villa's captured soldiers that had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. So when I finished my photo shoot, I walked out on an overgrown, two-track dirt road that led east, outside the chain link fence but inside the gate across the asphalt road leading into the school.

 

I lost the road a couple of times and was about to give up my search as the morning grew hotter, but then I saw the altered brick (left) lying next to the road. I thought maybe it had been a makeshift grave marker. "I'll go a little farther, then," I said to myself. A few steps later I suddenly made out gray headstones and two rusty gates, wide enought to admit a hearse or wagon bearing coffins, in the distance.

 

I estimated there were around 70 standing gravestones and weathered wooden crosses within the sagging fence. Mysteriously, there were graves on the western and eastern ends of the cemetery, but the center appeared to be empty. There were ten stones on the western end. Four of them had obviously Navajo names with the date 1929, four years after the army post became a school, no birth dates. I wondered if these were students. It was all too common that Native students died in residential schools of heartbrokenness, exposure when trying to escape or disease brought on by both. The other six stones were marked "Unknown," but the stones were marble, so clearly someone had cared to bury the bodies well.

 

The graves on the eastern end of the cemetery were indeed those of Mexican soldiers, including a general. But an article by Harold L. James, published by the New Mexico State Highway Commission, indicates that they were not Pancho Villa's soldiers but Federalist loyalists seeking asylum from Villa's forces with their families. The US decided to remove them from anyplace near the Mexican border, in case there were Villa's men hidden among them. They were detained (2,000-4,000 of them from varying reports) in a tent city south of the army post. The soldiers had plain cement headstones, but the general merited a rather ornate plinth that rose above all the other stones in the cemetery. They were held from 1914-1915, so they did not die in the 1918 epidemic. I didn't learn any causes of their deaths.

 

Further research explained the mystery of the empty center of the graveyard: most US soldiers' remains were removed to the Santa Fe National Cemetery. There were two white marble gravestones of US soldiers from the WWII era, one clearly Navajo, who died in 1944 and the other who died in 1948. One wooden cross was kept freshly painted white with black lettering: a Navajo man, born in 1909 and died in 1983. His was the most recent grave in the yard, someone who had died old, so not a student at the time of death. I wondered who had decided to bury him here and why.

 

The cemetery was very overgrown, the latest grave the only one to be somewhat cared for. I felt a soberness, a sadness at the unknown stories. The likely students and the asylum seekers no doubt went to their graves with sorrow in their hearts.

 

To see photos from the graveyard, go to the Facebook search space and enter "Anna Redsand cemetery."

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OLD FT. WINGATE SCHOOL

Ft. Wingate Company Barracks, built 1906

For the many-eth time, I passed the abandoned, old Ft. Wingate school, as I drove up to the Quaking Aspen Campground. I thought, This time I'm going to breach the fencing and go in and take pictures. The school was on the site of a fort originally named Ft. Fauntleroy, and it was where, in 1846, the Bear Springs (Shashbitó in the Diné language) Treaty was signed by Narbona and other Diné chiefs and Colonel Alexander Doniphan. In 1918, an ordnance depot for high explosives being returned from Europe after WWI was constructed two miles west of Fort Wingate. In 1925, the entire post moved to that location, and the original fort was turned into a vocational high school for Navajo students. That was the place I went to visit earlier this week. It's also a place with which I have some personal history. It turns out the location has been abandoned to a caretaker more than once: from 1910-14, from 1915-1918, and most recently in 2010. I did run into a caretaker as I was leaving the way I came in, where chain link fencing had been torn open by others. I waved to him, and he waved back, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.

 

I walked around the overgrown grounds snapping photos, mainly of stone institutional buildings, including the well known barracks of 1906, as well as an agricultural building with silos, the Depression Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) era stone-and-viga elementary school that looks so much like the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school I attended in Teec Nos Pos. It is a close cousin to schools built of dressed native stone all over the Navajo Nation.

 

I avoided taking pictures of the cinderblock classroom and dormitory buildings constructed in the 1950s and 60s and the long, metal warehouse-like ones because they have no aesthetic value. At least that's how I thought of my omission. On further reflection I realize that there may have been another, darker reason. One of those buildings, easily identified despite its boarded up windows and graffitied walls, holds my history with this place.

 

This is not a history I am proud of. In the process of colonizing indigenous peoples, governments have relied on the collaboration of religious entities. The old Ft. Wingate School was a US Government school (a new one still is). Missionaries across the breadth of Navajo Country had an agreement to provide religious instruction in the BIA schools one afternoon or evening a week and on Sundays. As the child of missionaries, when I was in high school, I was conscripted into the army of religious instructors. I went willingly every Tuesday evening to that cinderblock building at Ft. Wingate to tell Bible stories and sing gospel choruses with second grade girls.

 

Today I am vigorously opposed to proselytizing, which was part of my everyday life for so many years. I think if people are seeking a spiritual path and they see something in me that they're drawn to because of how I live my life, then great; I'm willing to share. Otherwise not. So I look back at my 15- and 16-year-old self, and I do the only thing I know to do: I forgive myself for not knowing better at the time. And I hope that if those little girls remember the time they spent with me at all, they remember me as kind and as a good storyteller.

 

To see more photos of the abandoned school, go to Facebook. Enter "Anna Redsand Ft Wingate" in the FB search space.

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