A plume of smoke has drifted skyward from the city-run campsite in North Lawrence ever since Ashley Sawyer, of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was found dead in her tent last week.
Camp residents have scrambled at times to keep the fire burning in Ashley’s honor. A Native American cultural tradition, the fire represents the light, and the smoke represents the trail to guide Ashley’s spirit, residents have said.
They plan to keep it burning until they hold her memorial on Friday.
Ashley had lived in dozens of places in Lawrence over her lifetime. Greg Sawyer looks at these places and thinks of his daughter.
“They’re not all houses — a lot of them are spots, behind this building … by this river here — and it’s important to me that you know she was part of this place just like all these other people,” Greg said. “But she was part of a place within the place.”
Born in Oklahoma, Ashley had a brother who was four years older. Her mother left the family when Ashley was a toddler.
“A couple years after she was born it was just her, her big brother, and dad at home in Oklahoma,” Greg said. “I loved her. I knew her from the moment she was born. I was there, and could not have been happier on that day.”
Greg took Ashley to powwows in Oklahoma until the family moved to Lawrence when she was a kindergartner in 1991. He continued the tradition of taking her to powwows at Haskell Indian Nations University intermittently through the years to help her connect to her Indigenous heritage.
Ashley attended Prairie Park Elementary School. She danced and was a cheerleader at Billy Mills Middle School. She cheered for a short while when she started attending Lawrence High School — until her “problems started” at around age 15, Greg said.
“She basically was getting into more and more trouble,” he said.
Ashley ran away to Oklahoma around age 16.
And Ashley’s mother had gone on to have four more kids, but she was no longer in Ashley’s life. Greg remarried twice, and both women came to love Ashley maternally, Greg said. His current wife, Donis, said Ashley confided that she had once reached out to her birth mother but was not warmly received, and she was emotionally wounded by that.
Ashley also had bipolar disorder, depression and anemia. And her medications wouldn’t work when she drank, Greg said.
‘She loved us. She just had a lot of problems’
Ashley gave birth to Amiya at age 18, shortly after she returned from Oklahoma. Then she had Gavin and Max, each two years apart.
“Ashley loved her children but never had all of them and herself under one roof,” Greg said. “When she did have a roof of her own, it never seemed to be anything that was going to last very long for many reasons.”
Greg and Donis took care of Amiya from birth and Gavin from age 4 on. Max lives with his father in Kansas City.
Amiya, now 18, loved her mom, and she also recognized that Ashley struggled with alcoholism, which hindered her functioning as a person and a mother.
“It had been happening since I was born,” Amiya said. “I’m used to it, as bad as it sounds. Like, it doesn’t hurt any less, but it’s definitely like, I’m used to it.”
Ashley would come stay with Greg, Donis, Amiya and Gavin for two-week bursts throughout the kids’ lives. These flashes of beauty and wellness washed over the kids like a healing salve.
“I’d always like seeing her doing good. It sucks getting your hopes up, but it’d be nice seeing her in a well state, especially when you’re able to talk to her for long amounts of time,” said Gavin, now 16. “I’d always be excited. I’ve never once shut her out. I’d always try and give her another chance … In my mind, I’d know most likely it’s not going to stay like this, but it would be nice.”
Ashley visited her kids more often when they were younger. She still came to see them as they aged — though never as much as they wished.
“Ashley, she’s never really put effort into seeing her kids,” Gavin said. “I know she loved us. She just had a lot of problems.”
When Ashley wasn’t drinking, she would take her children on walks, watch movies, and sit and draw with them.
Gavin once asked Ashley to bring glue next time she visited so they could make oobleck. A couple weeks later, she shuffled into the house clutching a sack filled with glue bottles, a grin on her face. Gavin felt warmth in his heart.
It showed she cared; that she thought about him when she was away.
Though Ashley wasn’t with her children as much as they would have liked, she thought and talked about them often, residents at the North Lawrence campsite said.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be with her kids; her addiction to alcohol prevented her from doing so, Connie Oldman said.
Ashley felt ashamed about the way she was living, Oldman said.
“She would isolate, and that is part of addiction — isolation,” she said.
Ashley was also depressed, which prevented her from seeking connection with anyone, even the people she lived among.
“Her hair was getting matted, but she would always just put it up,” Oldman said. “It was always just one big matted bun. She started letting go of her own self-care.”
Ashley’s addiction to alcohol tragically overpowered everything else in her life, Greg said.
“We tried the carrot and stick approach,” Greg said. “We got her a car: ‘So here’s a car. You think you can manage a job at McDonald’s or something? You can stay here, no bills. … We got her a house over in North Lawrence. She had actually tried to make that work and it just didn’t.”
At first, Greg would have Ashley leave his home when she drank around her young children, to protect them. In recent years, he let her stay in the home even when she drank, hoping she would stay.
“But I couldn’t get her here to stay here instead of out there on the street, much less in an apartment … Ashley ended up in a community inside this community that, you know, the rest of us don’t even know,” Greg said.
Bruised and battered
Living outside took a toll on Ashley.
“When we would see her sometimes she just looked awful, like one time she had poison ivy, bruises,” Amiya said.
“From sleeping on concrete all the side of her face would be messed up, black eyes, bloodshot,” Gavin said.
“People would beat up on her,” Amiya said.
One partner broke Ashley’s leg in a domestic dispute, her family said. As a survivor of domestic violence, she became eligible for services for battered and abused women — but she wouldn’t utilize them, Greg said.
Ashley’s family took her to inpatient rehab three times. Ashley invariably relapsed.
But she would reenter the family home regularly, reigniting everyone’s hopes for her recovery.
“We always made sure she knew that she could come here and she would take advantage of that, I think, where she’d come here … to like rest up, maybe act like she’s getting better,” Amiya said. “But then she’d decide she doesn’t want to be here anymore and she’d leave.”
Sometimes the kids would feel angry, but they’d suppress their feelings in fear of spoiling the moment. Other times they would tell Ashley how hurt they were.
“I’d kind of lose it sometimes when I’d see her,” Gavin said. “I’d started yelling at her because it was pure anger. Tell her how I feel. Every time I’d see her was just me telling her what she was doing wrong.”
When Ashley detoxed in the family home, she suffered from panic attacks, seizures and hallucinations. Amiya said Ashley was terrified to have a seizure while she was alone.
“She didn’t want me to leave her,” Amiya said.
After watching their mother struggle and relapse so many times, Gavin and Amiya stopped expecting her to recover. But they never stopped wanting it or hoping that it would happen.
About a year ago, Greg got a call from Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Ashley’s drinking had damaged her liver and kidneys. She left the hospital with a plethora of pill bottles, including some psychotropic medications to improve her mental health. Greg welcomed her home again.
“By seeing her in this well state it was very hopeful,” Greg said. “‘This could work, we’ve got to stick with it.’ But she would make the choice to start drinking again. Once the drinking started that null-and-voided any kind of psych medicines or anything else, or even the health care medicines.”
Finding community outside
Ashley always felt a pull back to the streets, where she’d found a sort of refuge with a community of people, many of them Indigenous. That included Ted Jarvis, Oldman’s father, whom Ashley met while living on the streets.
Ashley and Jarvis, Eastern Shoshone, were in a relationship for almost four years, until he died of cirrhosis of the liver and congestive heart failure in June.
“She changed his sheets, took him to the bathroom, changed him. She was there,” Oldman said. “After my dad passed away, she definitely paid attention to learning about Native culture.”
Ashley’s family met Jarvis several times, and felt as though he cared about her. Greg said Ashley had more Native friends after she left home, and she seemed more connected to her heritage through them.
Camp residents said Ashley was an amazing friend, and she was always ready to greet people with a smile. Many people living outside came to love her.
Before the city-run campsite opened in North Lawrence, Ashley had lived at unsanctioned campsites around town. At a camp behind the old Sonic in North Lawrence, she bonded with Susan Ford, a woman who was chronically homeless for more than 20 years.
“They both checked into the support site together (on) the first of October,” said Jenn Wolsey, former homeless programs coordinator for the city. “Ashley requested that her tent be set up right across from Susan, so she could keep an eye on (her). Many days you would find them sitting in their unzipped tents chatting across the aisle from one another, like best friends do.”
But Ford, 53, died at the campsite in November, which devastated Ashley.
When Ford’s children visited from Oklahoma for her memorial, they specifically asked to meet Ashley because their mom had said how important she was to her.
Ashley told Wolsey that she felt too overwhelmed to speak with Ford’s family.
“I expressed understanding and went down and explained to Susan’s children that Ashley was just unable to attend this visit with them due to grief,” Wolsey said.
They continued their visit, and Ford’s children met some others from the camp. Soon, they were getting ready to leave.
“All of a sudden we see Ashley slowly approaching the group,” Wolsey said. “She had tears streaming down her face, and very quietly she said ‘Hi. I am Ashley and I loved your mom.’”
Over the weekend, camp residents sat down with Amiya and shared stories and descriptions of her mother.
“We went through stuff and I got some of her clothes and jewelry,” Amiya said. “And yeah, I talked to some of them.
“She had a very charismatic personality,” Amiya continued. “I mean everyone, especially at the camp, that’s what they said. They were like, ‘She was amazing.’ But as a mom, I guess she’s kind of lacking in that.”
‘I want to see something get better’
Living outside was hard on Ashley and her family. And the grief they feel, and the grief the people at the campsite feel for her, is palpable.
Ashley was 36 years old. Her family has speculated about how she could have died — hypothermia, alcohol poisoning, liver failure, overdose — but they still won’t know the cause of her death for several weeks. Police said they did not suspect foul play.
Greg said he doesn’t know what good can come of what happened to Ashley.
“But it wasn’t because she wasn’t loved, it wasn’t because there weren’t all kinds of people around who cared about her. It wasn’t because nobody ever helped her,” Greg said. “She could have come in. She could have been comfortable and warm and safe that night, much less all the nights before. But over and over, she didn’t want that.
“And my question, my issue is, what can we do to actually accomplish something?” he continued. “I want to see something, something get better, even if just a little tiny, tiny bit, you know.
“I didn’t want to know anybody over there. But I mean, I got to know people over there. It’s not a bad thing. But what can I do about this, what’s anybody gonna do about it, including the people that are there? … What are we to do?”
For now, the camp residents continue to stoke the fire intended to guide Ashley’s spirit, hoping the warmth, the light and the smoke will keep her safe on her journey.
Residents of the North Lawrence campsite have kept a fire burning for Ashley Sawyer since she was found dead in her tent on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
Ashley’s memorial service is set for 6 p.m. Friday, March 31 at the Union Pacific Depot, 402 N. Second St. in North Lawrence.
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Chansi Long (she/her), Lawrence life reporter, can be reached at clong (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
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