The History of Mary Poafpybitty

The History of Mary Poafpybitty

Sanapia (20 May 1895-23 Jan. 1979), [also reported as 1984 and 1986]), Native American medicine woman, was born in Medicine Park, near Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the daughter of a Comanche father named David Poafpybitty, a farmer who had assimilated to white society and converted to Christianity, and a traditional Comanche-Arapaho mother, a shaman named Chappy (or Chapty). Given the Christian name Mary Poafpybitty at birth, Sanapia was raised, according to Comanche matrilineal custom, by her mother and maternal grandmother, both established medicine women.

Maudine Kennedy Pic
Maudine Kennedy; the only living child of Mary Poafpybitty. She still resides in Oklahoma at the age of 80 years young. This picture was taken at the 2016 Poafpybitty Pow Wow Reunion.

She attended the Cache Creek Mission School in Southern Oklahoma from the age of seven; there she read the Bible and learned English well enough to act as interpreter for her conservative mother, who refused to use the language with whites. She left the school in 1908 and returned home where, according to her biographer David Jones (p. 24), she "was reticent at first, but combined pressure from her mother and maternal grandmother persuaded her to at least consent to the first phases of [the] training program" to become an "eagle doctor"--a native healer under the supernatural patronage of the eagle. Her mother's brother, an eagle doctor adept in the Native American Church's ritual use of the cactus peyote, had cured her of influenza when she was a child and exacted a promise to accept the instruction as a healer when she was older, naming her "Memory Woman" as a reminder of her pledge. Under the joint tutelage of her peyotist uncle and her eagle-doctor parent and grandparent, she learned herbal medicine and acquired all the skills of tribal medicine. At the age of seventeen she underwent a four-day fast and a series of ceremonies through which her mother transferred the eagle power to her.

Forbidden by tradition to practice until after menopause, Sanapia accepted an arranged marriage immediately after completing her medical training, but the couple soon separated and she remarried someone of her own choice. This second marriage was a happy one; it produced two children and ended only with her husband's death in the 1930s. The loss of her husband led to a period of depression that she described as "roughing it out," reacting to her grief with violent bursts of anger, compulsive gambling, excessive drinking, and sexual promiscuity. This behavior was accepted in her culture as appropriate to her professional status because, as Jutta von Bucholtz notes, "a time is left open [in Comanche tradition] for the healer to be wounded by life before she can heal the wounded herself" (p. 9). Still unwilling to accept the role of eagle doctor, she consented to undertake the treatment of a sister's child in 1945, and when her niece recovered under her care she accepted her calling. Around this time she married for a third time. She was widowed once again in her old age, but continued an active medical practice until her death in Chandler Creek, Oklahoma.

Sometimes providing her treatment during peyote services in the Native American Church, she also included in her practice elements of her father's Christianity and her mother's Comanche tradition of calling on the totemic guardian spirit embodied in the eagle. She treated almost all ailments, physical and psychological, but her specialty was "ghost sickness," a condition believed to be caused by contact with ghosts and unique to Native Americans. Common among Plains Indians, the disorder, known among Comanches as "crooked mouth" or "twisted face," is characterized by paralysis of the muscles on one side of the face and has been identified with Bell's palsy. Sanapia distinguished between what white people called "stroke" and ghost sickness, and she refused to treat what she recognized as symptoms of stroke. David E. Jones, an anthropologist who studied the life and practice of Sanapia for three years from 1967, estimated that "she doctors approximately six cases of ghost sickness per year, and she may treat twenty patients suffering from more standard ailments during the same time" (p. 83). The supernatural power she was recognized as possessing elevated her status in her tribe to that of a man.

Sanapia's healing rituals usually began with songs and prayers to call upon her spirit helper, the eagle, and then proceeded to the traditional use of medicinal plants--sneezeweed for heart palpitations, low blood pressure, and congestion; rye grass for cataracts; iris for colds, upset stomach, and sore throats; broomweed for skin rashes; and peyote, to be chewed or infused and drunk as a tea, for all illnesses. In some cases, including those of ghost sickness, she resorted to sucking the illness out of her patients' bodies through pieces of cow horn. Her medical paraphernalia also included slivers of glass for making incisions; pieces of charcoal and patches of fur; porcupine quills and fossilized bone; and eagle and crow feathers, for use in treating specific ailments. According to Jones, "she carries the Bible with her most of the time, and it is always present when she doctors" (p. 51), but her principal following was among Comanche traditionalists. According to Medicine Woman, "Sanapia's magic worked best on Native Americans who have faith in the 'old ways,' and on those who had tried the white man's world and found it unwilling to accept them" (p. 120). By the traditional rules of eagle doctors, she was not permitted to state a price and had to accept what was offered. An average fee was thirty dollars, along with groceries and some cloth, and she was required to give a portion of her payment to someone near her.

By the 1960s Sanapia was the last surviving Comanche eagle doctor and had become something of an anachronism, aware, as Jones noted, that she represented an ancient and disappearing institution (p. 45). Nevertheless, though she was unable to pass her skills on to a successor and the status of Comanche eagle doctor vanished after her death, she was posthumously to become a culture hero beyond the Native American community as a woman who carried her people's traditions into the twentieth century. In 2005 Laura Secord's one-woman show entitled Sanapia's Courage Medicine: A Woman Healer's Life in Poems, drawn from her words, was presented successfully on the stage.


Dennis Wepman. "Sanapia";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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A full-length examination of Sanapia's life, work, and place in Native American culture, including extensive quotations from interviews with the subject, is David E. Jones's ethnographic case study Sanapia: Comanche Medicine Woman (1972, 1984). Information on her career is included in most reference books on Native American religion and medicine. See Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa, eds., Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (1993); Sharon Malinowski, ed., Notable Native Americans (1995); William S. Lyon, ed., Encyclopedia of Native American Healing (1996); Elizabeth Brooke, ed.; Phyllis G. Jestice, ed., Holy People of the World: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia (2004); David Wishart, ed., Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2004); and Suzanne J. Crawford and Dennis F. Kelley, eds., American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia (2005). → read more →