Special to Indian Country Today
If you were lucky enough to know and love Dawn Wheeler, you probably have a piece of artwork to remember her by. Family and friends say she found as much joy in gifting her paintings and drawings to others as she did in creating them.
“She was a really good artist. She would paint something, and then she would just give it away. She would be like 'Oh, I made this for you,’” her niece Gretchen Nomee said. “She was always really generous. I remember that about her.”
Curtis Wheeler remembers that once, before he left for a long trip away from home, his Auntie Dawn gave him a particularly memorable gift.
“She came outside, and she had a leather jacket that she had painted on,” he said. “It made me look like Fonzie. And we laughed about that together.”
In March, Dawn was one of 14 members of the extended Wheeler family of the Wind River Reservation who became infected with COVID-19.
“The last time I saw Dawn, I took her fruit because when you're that sick, you don't want to eat,” said Dawn’s cousin Julia Antelope. “I asked her, ‘What are you doing to do?’ and she said, ‘I'm going to fast and pray, because that's all I know how to do.’”
Two days later, Dawn was hospitalized along with her parents, Gloria and Larry Wheeler.
“It kept going on and on, and finally I started realizing that we were losing Larry and Gloria. I didn't think we were losing Dawn. I thought Dawn was going to come out of it,” said Regina Antelope, Larry Wheeler’s sister and Dawn’s auntie.
But on April 20, Larry, Gloria and Dawn all passed away within hours of one another.
“It was hard. I got on my knees and prayed a lot of times,” Antelope said. “This is just the ugliest thing a family can go through. And it was really hell, because we couldn't even go to each other's house to be together.”
Dawn was born in Lander, Wyoming, in 1965, the eldest of Larry and Gloria’s children. She was 55.
“When they had their baby together, [Larry] was real proud of it,” Regina Antelope said. “Dawn, she came into the world, I remember her. She was just a big cute baby.”
Julia Antelope cherishes childhood memories of her cousin Dawn, who was more like a big sister to her.
“Growing up, she always took care of us younger girls and our brothers. If we were hungry, she would cook us lunch, things like that,” she remembers. “And she taught us about the bible and taught us about prayer.”
Dawn was a thoughtful woman who listened far more than she spoke. But her sister Cheryl Oldman remembers she was once the star of their church choir.
“We got together in a choir and our mom was telling us what we could do, what we couldn't do, how to walk in our heels and everything,” Oldman laughed. “But Dawn, she’s soft-spoken, her voice is softer, so they would have her sing all the high songs. I wished we could have recorded them. They were real pretty songs, and she had a real pretty voice.”
Throughout her life, Dawn loved caring for children. Her niece Cherish Nomee believes Dawn inherited her nurturing instincts from her mother, Gloria Wheeler.
“Auntie Dawn was just the sweetest, kind soul. Just like her mama,” Nomee said through tears.
“She loved babies. She would get them from your arms and just carry them around. You know, and she would just baby them,” Dawn’s sister Charla Moss remembered.
“My Auntie Dawn was very, very close with one of my daughters. She always went out of her way to get my kids gifts and snacks all the time. She was probably their favorite grandma,” Dawn’s niece Whitney Lopez said.
Family members agree that the greatest joy of Dawn’s life was raising her daughter, Ashley Wheeler, with whom she shared a very close relationship.
“After she had Ashley, all of her time was with her daughter. And they were like best friends,” Julia Antelope said.
Ashley, who is 27, fought her own battle with the novel coronavirus alongside her mother and grandparents.
“I was in the hospital for 26 days, and I was intubated for 10. I guess some people don't remember [being on a ventilator], but I remember a lot. And it was basically just a really long nightmare and I couldn't wake up,” Ashley said.
(Previous story: ‘Creator let them go together’: Wheeler family remembers elders)
Now, in addition to recovering from complications of the illness, she is grieving her mother, grandmother and grandfather, who she called the most important people in her life.
“My mom was quiet, but she had a lot of love in her. She was really caring, she was really gentle,” Ashley said. “She was my favorite person. I really miss her.”
Like her parents, Dawn was a devout Christian and an active member of her church. She shared spiritual guidance with her daughter, siblings, nieces and nephews, who now find comfort in their faith as they mourn her.
Savannah Maher, Mashpee Wampanoag, is a tribal affairs reporter for Wyoming Public Media and Report for America corps member. She's contributed to New Hampshire Public Radio, High Country News, and NPR’s Code Switch blog. Twitter: @savannah_maher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more Portraits from the Pandemic: https://indiancountrytoday.com/obituaries/