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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


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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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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Shiprock from Beclabito, NM–an iconic image from childhood

Whenever I can, which means when time is not of the essence, and it rarely is anymore, I drive the back roads. I especially detest driving on I-40, which is the most direct route to many places for me; it is croweded with 18-wheelers serving the country from East to West and back again. As I take up my nomadic life, I've become even more committed to not using the Interstates. I used to take I-40 to the Mesita exit, 40 miles west of Albuquerque, pick up Historic 66 and drive it to Continental Divide (the actual name of a place) where 66 ended, then pick it up again at Iyanibito when driving to Gallup. Now I go through my old stomping grounds of Cuba, NM, then Crownpoint, Mariano Lake, Pinedale, and Churchrock–an extra 71 miles and so worth it. The drive is relaxed, never once touching an Interstate and offering vistas of great beauty.


Sunday I left Albuquerque for Flagstaff, Arizona and took a most satisfying, round-about route, first to camp at Quaking Aspen in the Zuni Mountains for one night. I got in a couple of short hikes before a welcome visit from my brother Rick. We chatted at my campfire while he fixed his supper (I'd already eaten), and before he left, he played me a three-number concert on his mouth harp--a Celtic piece, an Inuit number that was hauntingly gorgeous, and "Amazing Grace" by request. I delighted in the stars above the pines and had another walk in the morning.


I had some errands to do in Gallup before taking off for the home of my friend who lives in Tse Daa K'aan, just east of Shiprock. From Gallup there's no Interstate, so I took the most direct route–NM Highway 491, previously named 666. I love this highway, as the entire road represents memories, among them: Tohlakai, where my father was missionary for six years; Sheep Springs where we turned off every summer to go to Cottonwood Pass Campmeetings; Toadlena, which is the address that appears on all of my University of New Mexico transcripts because my parents lived there after I left home; Table Mesa with its redundant name where we had a picnic on my 4th birthday. Gloria and I talked shop (writing) and many other things, including shared memories. We ate dinner at Mikasa Japanese restaurant in Farmington and afterwards walked Main Street downtown.


Yesterday I headed for Flagstaff, traversing the Navajo Nation through Beclabito, where I played in the red canyon with my friend Marlene and ate her mother's fry bread; Teec Nos Pos, which I think of as "home-not-home;" on through spectacular country like Antelope Canyon, which I'd driven through before but didn't remember and was blown away all over again.


Due to an unusually wet winter in the Southwest, the roadsides were lush with rabbit brush, saltbush, yellow daisies, sunflowers. There were fields and fields filled with young rabbit brush (also known as chamisa) where there had been none before. As always, when driving through places I know well, I saw things I'd never noticed before. One of the oddest was a pair of stairs going up a rock outcrop somewhere past Tohatchi. It made me wonder what was so important about getting to the top of that outcrop, and who needed the stairs. A story there. The Nation is also peppered with what missionaries have left behind--roads and buildings ending in "ministry," "revival," "campmeeting," "mission." Creative names like "Glory Road," "Heaven's Door," "Prosperity Gospel Chapel." Yet another story.

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