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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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