Edited by Allie Long
While writing a series of articles on Mattersville, I stumbled upon Mary Sander’s extraordinary story of healing and friendship with the wolf, Cheyenne. This article is based on interviews I conducted with Mark Johnson and Mary and Tom Sander. I would like to thank them for their time and for the privilege of retelling their story here.
. . .
The Man From Maryland
In my first article about Mattersville and this pack of wolves, I told a story about a man from Maryland who lost all ten toes on a hike in the Rockies. He traveled across the country to Silver Plume, CO, to meet Mark Johnson’s legendary healing wolf, Cheyenne. If this is your first time dropping in on the story and you feel like you’ve just stumbled upon the lyrics of an old American folksong, please bear with me.
When we left off, Mark and his friend, Wolf in the Shadow, had just given the man from Maryland a medicine bag filled with Cheyenne’s hair and a single directive.
“Redo the hike.”
“I can’t,” the man from Maryland said.
“You have to try,” Mark insisted.
The man left Silver Plume. He made no promises about the hike, but he did take the medicine bag.
About a week later, Mark got a call; it was the man’s wife. She wanted to thank Mark and tell him that her husband had done it. He’d redone the hike.
She told Mark that “he would go along, and when he couldn’t go any further, he would reach down and grab the medicine bag, take a deep breath, and go on.”
“And he actually made it back to where he lost his toes.” Mark told me this 20-year-old story during our phone conversation in January. Without any explanation for the strength supposedly derived from this bag of fur, I didn’t know what to make of the tale — that is, until I spoke to Mary Sander.
Cheyenne the Healing Wolf (courtesy of Mary Sander)
Cheyenne’s Healing Fur
After obtaining Mary Sander’s contact information from Mark, I approached her in hopes that she would provide photos of Cheyenne for a previous post on the restorative power of wolves. Luckily, she was happy to oblige. After our initial correspondence, she shared with me her own healing encounter with Cheyenne.
Mary Sander, 88, and her husband Tom, 83, met Mark in Arizona following Hurricane Katrina. They were living in the town of Strawberry, and read in the local paper that the wife of T. Boone Pickens, “an oil man from Texas,” had organized the rescue of dogs stranded after the hurricane.
According to Tom, the dogs were picked up, cared for, and put on a 737 to be “flown around the country.” 150 of these “Katrina dogs” were shipped to a Buddhist ranch just outside Young, AZ — about 60 miles away from Strawberry.
Mary and Tom responded to the advertisement calling for volunteers at the ranch. The couple arrived in Young, and Mary was given a wheelbarrow to bring food to the dogs and haul waste from their enclosures.
One day, while Mary was walking her usual route to all the dogs, the wheelbarrow got away from her, rolling down a treacherously steep hill. She sprang in front of the runaway wheelbarrow, injuring her meniscus in the process.
According to Mary, she didn’t actually tear her meniscus until she was back at home, trying to stand up from her chair. Tom, who was sitting across the room from Mary, said he actually heard the cartilage tearing.
Her doctor put Mary’s leg in an immobile brace, and Tom went back to volunteering at the Buddhist ranch. A few months later, Mark Johnson traveled to Arizona to talk to members of the ranch about using some of their land to expand his wolf sanctuary. He overheard Tom sharing Mary’s condition with the owners–she’d seen no improvement, even after almost three months of rest–and doubled back to his truck, returning with a gift for Tom.
“[Mark] handed me a fistful of Chey’s hair and said, ‘Have her wrap her knee in that.’”
In spite of having no idea who Mark was and not knowing anything about Cheyenne, Tom still took the fur and brought it back to Mary, who accepted the fur and promptly put it on her shelf. Then, she forgot about it. If nothing else, it made a nice ornament for their mantle.
Cheyenne and her bone (courtesy of Mary Sander)
A week later, Tom’s brother and his wife announced plans to visit, announcing their arrival in just a few days at the Phoenix airport. Mary began to fret that she would not be able to pick up her relatives because her leg was still completely immobilized by the brace and no better than when the injury occurred.
When I asked how bad the injury was, she said she couldn’t even stand on it. “It was just stiff. If I tried to move it in any direction, it was just so painful I could not stand it.”
“I can’t ride like this,” Mary thought to herself. “So, I looked up there and saw the hair.”
Mary Sander grabbed a bandana and put the hair inside. With an ACE bandage, she tied the fur-filled bandana around her knee.
“What were you thinking while you were doing this?”
“All I was thinking was, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’”
In the spirit of, “hey, let’s give it a whirl,” Mary applied the fur and went to bed.
The next morning, Mary sat up on her mattress and tried to move her knee. “It didn’t hurt as bad.” Mary tried to move it. “It moved slightly,” so Mary figured she might as well keep the fur on it.
The morning after that, she was able to move it “four or five inches” without any pain.
On the third morning, she removed her bandana and tested the limb again. “It didn’t hurt. I stood up and I could swing that leg back and forth. I could kick it out in front of me, in back of me–there was absolutely no pain and I have never had any pain since.”
Mary was healed.
“What did you think?”
“I didn’t think anything. I just started crying.” Mary burst out laughing over the phone, reliving the relief she felt upon reclaiming the use of her leg.
Journey of the Dead (Circa 1839 AD)
Mary’s account is reminiscent of a story recorded by famed ethnographer James Mooney about the Kiowa’s sun dance festival. (I mean this insofar as it’s a story about a wolf healing a human.) It’s an old tale, but it highlights the persistence and value of the animal protector mythos.
The story took place in 1839 and followed Kóñate, “Black-tripe,” as he and a Kiowa war party rode out against the Paseños (the Mexicans of El Paso).
Gúădalóñte, or “Painted-red,” led the war party through Texas to El Paso, where they ultimately elected not to attack the Paseños; perhaps the Mexicans’ fortifications were a little more fortified than they anticipated. Instead, the warriors set up camp in the desolate Jornada del Muerto, a 90-mile stretch of desert largely void of water and forage.
In the night, the war party was beset upon “by a large force of Mexican soldiers.” The soldiers killed several of their horses and pushed them back into a cave amidst the Hueco Tanks, a modern-day historical site and bouldering destination.
Internationally renowned for bouldering, you can also catch a glimpse of the petroglyphs left by past tribes depicting animals, dances, and geometric designs.
The Mexican forces waged a war of attrition against the Kiowa tribesmen. Holed away without food or water, the warriors only ventured out at night to the nearby stream to drink and strip flesh from their fallen, putrefying horses. One man was shot in the leg during one such venture; a wound that would later prove a death sentence.
At length, the warriors needed to make moves. After over a week of waiting and withering in the Hueco Tanks, the spoiled horsemeat had tainted their only water supply. They made a break for it. All the warriors, save Dágoi, the wounded soldier, mounted the escarpment, climbing the roots and trunk of a cedar tree that had wedged itself inside a rocky crevasse.
“When you get home, tell my comrades to come back and avenge me,” Dágoi whispered to his fleeing tribesmen. Emerging from the well, Dohasän, the war party’s back-up leader, sang the song of his order, the Kâitséñko, a song which “bid defiance to death.” A fellow warrior, Set-ängya, would later attempt to defy death in a similarly dramatic fashion before being riddled with Mexican bullets.
The party’s movement through the desert shrub alerted the Mexican guard, who rose up from their campfire and fired haphazardly into the brush. An errant bullet tore through Kóñate, seriously wounding the young warrior. Rather than leave him for dead, his party threw Kóñate over the back of a stolen Mexican horse and stole away into the darkness.
They carried Kóñate through the night; however, his deteriorating condition and the long road ahead spelled doom for the whole party. Reluctantly, they left Kóñate by a spring, erecting an arbor overhead to protect him from the sun. The warriors rode on.
Night descended on Kóñate. There was nothing left for him to do but wait for death to greet him, his wounds having festered all day in the sun. The wounded warrior had already resigned to his fate when he heard the first howl. Though Kóñate probably imagined his body would soon be returned to the Earth, he likely hoped the process could wait until after his spiritual departure. Still, the howling grew closer.
He heard the soft padding of the paws circling around him. The man sat in wait for the inevitable; what else could he do? But rather than descend upon him, tearing and shredding Kóñate to bits, the wolf trod up and gently licked the warrior’s wounds. Once the wolf had licked his wounds clean, it lay down beside him and settled in. The two warriors slept.
Kóñate awoke to the sound of tsó dal-tem, the “eagle-bone whistle of the sun dance,” and the spirit of taíme appeared before him.
“I pity you, and shall not let you die, but you shall see your home and friends again.”
The spirit summoned forth a heavy, healing rain. While Kóñate regained his forces, he conversed with the spirit, who shared their wisdom with him. He received instructions to build a medicine staff, the ä´poto, upon his return home. The staff would symbolize the knowledge that Kóñate had earned through his trials and encounter with the spirit.
“Help is near.” The spirit vanished.
Kóñate was later rescued by six Comanche warriors riding for Mexico. They had crossed paths with the Kiowa war party, who in turn petitioned them to cover Kóñate’s body from the wolves, figuring their old companion would be well dead by the time the Comanches arrived. The warriors had obliged, but upon arriving at the spring, they found the warrior in slightly better condition than when his tribesmen had left him. He was, at the very least, not dead.
The Comanches washed and fed Kóñate. They gave him a horse and rode with him back to the Kiowa. He returned to his tribe, where he “fully recovered and lived for many years”–the James Mooney iteration of living happily ever after. In the years following his return, Kóñate fulfilled his promise to the spirit of taíme, crafting several shields and the revered ä´poto staff, which he carried with him during the annual sun dance.
“The Kiowa Shield of Akopti depicting the Taime used in the Sacred Sun Dance ceremony.” (Taken from Flickr)
This story is almost 200 years old. For centuries, stories of wolves and healing have been told around the campfire to the backdrop of the pack howling just beyond the firelight’s glow. Is it so unlikely that our canine brothers and sisters still watch over us?
You can read the original account and more of Mooney’s stories here for free, thanks to Project Gutenberg.
Back in the year 2020, Mary was telling me about her trigger finger.
“Now, in the interim, I had had a trigger finger. Now, do you know what a trigger finger is?”
“Uhmm…” My understanding of trigger fingers started and ended with sometimes your finger gets stuck in the down position. “Not really. What is it?”
Mary gave me an excellent explanation of what a trigger finger is, but in this instance, I’ll defer to these ostensibly trustworthy medical professionals, Bob and Brad:
Phenomenal. But yes, it’s basically when your finger gets stuck in the down position. There are surgeries available for the condition in some cases (ask your doctor) and, as Bob and Brad pointed out, a range of therapeutic exercises you can perform.
Mary’s finger triggered every time she put on a fitted sheet. It also triggered whenever she made a fist or otherwise bent the finger, but she specifically remembers it triggering anytime she put a fitted sheet on her mattress.
Mary and Tom took a trip to see Mark and Cheyenne at the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation. By this time, the couple had become close friends with Mark; Mary even referred affectionately to Mark as “son.”
“When I went in to see Chey, the first thing I would always do, if she was up on top of her roof, is I would walk up and say, ‘Give me five,’ and she’d stick out that big ol’ paw.” Mary would high five Chey, paw and hand touching in the air between them. Once the ritual was complete, Chey would shower Mary with “licks and kisses.”
“She wouldn’t have anything to do with Tom, by the way.”
“I went in the pen,” Tom said. “She would get on one side, and as I moved around the pen, she just kept moving around the opposite direction.”
“She was that way with all men unless they had an emotional or physical problem.”
Tom appeared to be in tip-top shape at the time, so Cheyenne wanted nothing to do with him.
Mary sat down in Chey’s pen. “She came down off her roof, and then she came over. I had my hands laying on my knees, and she started licking my fingers.”
Mary visited the other wolves as well that day, but she remembers explicitly, “[Cheyenne] and Apollo were the only ones that licked my fingers.”
“I didn’t think anything about it.” Mary and Tom left the sanctuary and returned home. Laundry day came and went, and then it was time to make the bed again.
“The first time I started to put on a fitted sheet, that finger didn’t trigger.”
“It was fixed?”
“It never triggered since. Just from the two of those animals licking.”
. . .
Mary’s daughter, Lisa, and Cheyenne (courtesy of Mary Sander)
Mary told me about the time her daughter went with them to visit Cheyenne. She’d recently lost her dog, Rocky, and was in a bit of a funk. Upon entering Cheyenne’s pen, the wolf immediately took to her, walking behind her and resting her head on the daughter’s shoulder. Mary’s daughter and Cheyenne sat like that for a while as Cheyenne gently rubbed her muzzle against her.
That night, Mary’s daughter told her, “That was one of the best days I ever had in my life. I feel OK about Rocky.”
We talked for about an hour over the phone, Mary and I. She told me about the time Cheyenne healed a girl’s migraines, regaled me with the tale of a midnight run with Tom and Mark, transporting the wolves to a new sanctuary in the dead of night. I learned about Wigglebutt, Cheyenne’s pen-mate, whose “tail was as long as he was,” and whose butt and short hindlegs would wag with his tail whenever he got excited.
We exchanged pleasantries, discussed the coronavirus, and by the end of our talk, I was struck most by how profoundly Mark and Cheyenne had affected her. While Cheyenne is no longer with us, her legacy of healing has endured in the heart of her pack: tales of hurt and healing, of isolation and companionship, of warriors… and wolves.
. . .
Cheyenne resting her eyes (courtesy of Mary Sander)
You can visit Cheyenne’s pack at Mattersville in Sedalia, Colorado. Through their Heroes and Hybrids program, you can schedule a veteran-led tour and learn about their sustainable community.
This post was previously published on Greener Together and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Unsplash