Last Easter, 11-year-old Davis Ellis shot a turkey, his second bird in as many trips, while hunting with his uncle in Franklin County. Davis, who lives in North Raleigh, shared the meat with his family, but he didn’t want to waste a single feather.
He’d picked up this notion of conservation on a trip to the Qualla Boundary, Cherokee territory in the Smoky Mountains. That’s where he heard a tribal elder speak of hunters giving thanks for their kills, using every claw and scrap of fur out of respect.
So for the next two months, tutored by a veteran Boy Scout leader, Davis pieced together a bonnet in the traditional Sioux style, assembling 32 wing feathers into a colorful array. And the end, his teacher took no payment, asking only that Davis pass along the craft, much as the Sioux might have.
“They would thank the Great Spirit,” said Meg Ellis, Davis’ mom. “That thought really stuck with him.”
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Just for comparison, my family bought our pre-plucked, pre-cleaned, pre-washed turkey this year, and my brother-in-law rose at 4 a.m. to stuff it inside his smoker and cook it over cedar chips. We nibbled at the bird for four days, and it was savory and tender even as a left-over, but I wouldn’t call our feast an instructive or spiritual experience.
I have no idea where our turkey came from and only a little notion of how it met its end. The thanks that we offered toward any deity that might have been listening were, admittedly, pretty feeble. We were content to stuff ourselves.
Davis took a completely different approach. He’s a Webelo, which for the benefit of non-Scouts, refers to an outfit that allows fourth- and fifth-graders to prepare to join a Boy Scout troop “while learning outdoors skills and participating in many adventures.”
It turns out that Davis’ scoutmaster had a bonnet made by his former scoutmaster, Art Ferguson of Durham. At 68, and with 30 years in scouting, Ferguson has made a long study of war-bonnet making, though he is not Native American.
You can see his work, which he learned on a trip in Arizona, on his Facebook page The Finished Feather.
Bonnets were traditionally worn as war garb but have taken on a more ceremonial role. And the Sioux, I’ve read, resent their being worn by people who have not earned them. Before meeting Davis, Ferguson had made more than 100.
“I was a little – I won’t say skeptical ...” Ferguson said. “But with an 11-year-old, I’ve never sat one down and showed him how to do what I do.”
The first lesson: Ironing your feathers. Bonnet makers can’t work with eagle feathers, as they come from a protected species. That meant Davis had to press down the turkey feathers to flatten them.
“He can iron now,” his mother said, obviously pleased.
Another struggle: Attaching the “firecracker,” a strip of colored felt that hides the quills. “With the firecracker,” Davis said, “sometimes I got it on a bit crooked.”
As mentioned, it wasn’t an afternoon’s work.
But after eight trips, Ferguson signed off on the boy’s work, praising his craft. He wouldn’t accept any payment, to the astonishment of Davis’ mother, explaining that he wouldn’t be around much longer.
“That kind of took our breath away,” Meg Ellis said.
I don’t think I’ll push this particular project on my own son, as much as I admire it. We aren’t likely to acquire an entire turkey anytime soon.
But I like a lot of things that are going on here: The meeting of old and new, modern and traditional, all sewn together with persistent young hands.