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Spiritual discovery offers bowyers guidance

Chickasaw teacher, student craft 'three sisters' bows from perfect Bois d'arc

SULPHUR, Okla. -- Out in the country between Davis and Sulphur, an older, slender Chickasaw man with a thick, graying beard and thin glasses stopped in his tracks to point into a nearby grove of trees.

A younger Chickasaw man -- understanding the signal -- shot toward them.

"We knew that forest contained bows. I could feel them," Eli Johnson, mentor to the younger Chickasaw man, later recalled. "I knew they were there. We wandered through the woods, but we were led by an unseen hand. We were led to these specific trees."

David Correll, of Ada, was emotionally on fire to find the makings of a perfect bow. For two years, he absorbed all of the lessons, successes and failures of his bowyer mentor, Johnson. The two were already neck-deep into one of the most successful Bois d'arc tree hauls Johnson had seen in 30 years of crafting bows and arrows.

One tree was special. Johnson already knew it. Correll was about to catch up.

"The only way I can describe it -- I don't know if you've seen the movie with Chevy Chase, "Christmas Vacation," Correll said. "Well, Eli had a Clark Griswold moment."

In the movie, father Griswold drags his family through a forest of pine trees looking for the perfect Christmas tree. When he finds the one, light shines down upon it and a chorus of angels sing.

In recalling the moment he laid eyes upon this uncharacteristically straight, thick, tall and nearly-limbless Bois d'arc tree, Johnson mimicked angels singing.

It was perfect: 18 feet tall, thick as a telephone pole, straight as can be. No knots in sight, one of a kind.

"I could have said, David, you keep those other eight or nine trees and this one's mine. But I took pity on the boy," Johnson said with a chuckle. "Really, I wanted to give him the best I had, because I have been given the best and I couldn't do any different."

After offering their thanks, felling the tree and shouldering it back, Johnson and Correll split the exceptional Osage Orange in half. Johnsen kept his half of the perfect tree and sent Correll home with his half, as well as the rest of the eight-tree haul that preceded it.

They went their separate ways and began working the wood, the first step being a waiting game lasting months as the wood dries out.

Birds of a feather

The two had shared a close mentorship and friendship they had developed since meeting each other through work at the Chickasaw Cultural Center.

Years ago, Johnson taught a bow making class at the cultural center. Of the 10 students who began the process, Correll was one of the last students standing.

"David showed up for every class early and he stayed late. He asked lots of questions. I could tell the bow bug bit him," Johnson said.

"Not long after the class, I got a job at the cultural center. That boy wouldn't leave me alone! I thought after two years he'd run out of questions, but then he came up to me with at least 20 questions a day," Johnson said, sounding both flustered and pleased.

Johnson noticed Correll had become obsessed with bow making – a good sign – a reflection Johnson recognized in himself, really. His pupil was hungry for it. Correll wasn't looking for a cure for the bite of the bow bug.

Every spare moment Johnson and Correll had was filled with lessons. These lessons reached deeper than just the practicality of crafting a bow, down into what it means to live a good life -- a patient, wise and capable life.

"Before, I thought I had the utmost patience. I grow plants for a living. I thought, I have enough patience to sit there and watch plants grow," Correll said. "But here's the thing. You have to have even more patience building a bow. If you don't have patience with plants, they'll grow without you. But if you don't have enough patience with a bow, it'll break on you."

In addition to their bowyer insight regarding patience, both Johnson and Correll tout perseverance as being a core requirement when it comes to crafting bows. It comes in handy when months of work is found to be futile, due to unforeseen pitfalls like decades-old fire damage hidden within the past rings of a tree.

Perseverance also helps when normal life gets in the way, much like what happened to their mentorship soon after finding the perfect tree.

Johnson left his position at the cultural center to dedicate more time to his family and bow making in Meers, Oklahoma. Correll continued his work as greenhouse supervisor in Sulphur, but the growing season kept him busy. Now their lessons had to be primarily over the phone.

When it came time for Correll to work the dried wood from his half of the perfect Bois d'arc, Johnson coached him from a distance.

It wasn't until they met up again on the campus of the Chickasaw Cultural Center they fully understood what they'd managed.

The "Three Sisters"

Johnson visited the cultural center to host a demonstration and brought along his longbow. He ran into Correll, who had on hand some of his own creations. A conversation sparked up, another game of 20 questions, but after a while Correll noticed something.

"Eli, do you see what I see?" Correll asked his mentor.

"I was waiting for you to see that," Johnson responded.

"As soon as I think I'm on the same step, you're always three ahead of me," Correll said. "You know, this bow came from that Bois d'arc tree?"

"Well, come to think of it, this one did too," Johnson responded.

They inspected their bows side by side and found they could see where the wood's structure ran from one side of the tree to the other. They were nearly identical, from top to bottom.

Correll said it was like looking at twins, a nickname for the pair of bows which might have stuck if it weren't for what came next.

"Is that a third piece?" Correll asked. Johnson confirmed with a "Yep."

Johnson split his half perfectly and got two bows out of it. Correll crafted one bow out of his half of their perfect Bois d'arc tree -- which he chalks up to a lack of experience.

Now -- in a testament to an otherworldly Osage Orange and the bowyer bond between teacher and pupil --there are three sisters.

Just like the "three sisters" of corn, beans and squash which the Chickasaws have been growing together since ancient times to maintain soil fertility and healthy crops.

"The third bow is the one I'm finishing right now for the Artesian Arts Festival," Johnson said. "Coincidentally, my competition is David. It's sister against sister, and the older sister already won twice last year."

Perhaps the odds are stacked against him in this year's art competition. But Correll's the type of person who would take 30 years of adventure over 100 years of the easy life. He was the last man standing in Eli Johnson's intensive bow making course. He's soaked up 30 years of bowyer insight in two years and he's going to give the old man a run for his money.

The Artesian Arts Festival

Correll and Johnson will offer booths in the May 26 Artesian Arts Festival where they will show their bows and other creations, like on-of-a-kind animal hide quivers. The festival will be open to the public at no charge 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Artesian Plaza in Sulphur.

Additionally, Johnson will speak during the festival's artist talks 1:40 p.m. to 2:10 p.m. His presentation will cover the history and culture of bows, arrows and quivers.

The Artesian Arts Festival is one of America's fastest growing Native American arts markets and will feature more than 100 artists. The Artesian Plaza is located adjacent to the Artesian Hotel and Spa, 1001 W. First Street, Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Musical entertainment, tribal dance demonstrations and food vendors are also planned, as well as a special area for children's activities and a senior citizens' arts and crafts booth.

For more information about the Artesian Arts Festival, contact the Chickasaw Nation Division of Arts & Humanities at 580-272-5520, or by email at


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