Wild turkeys were a staple food for many Ozark hillfolk, if they were able to get them. They’re quick runners and are often easily spooked. Here are a couple turkey anecdotes from Vance Randolph, and a few turkey tales:
“Many a mountain girl conceals dried turkey bones about the room in which she meets her lover, or even secretes them in her clothing, in the belief that they will render him more amorous. I once heard some village loafers ‘greening’ a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him.”
“Mountain girls sometimes carry the beard of a wild turkey gobbler concealed about their clothing. Rose O’Neill, of Day, Missouri, asked a neighbor about this once and was told that ‘we use it to clean the comb with.’ Probably the gobbler’s beard does make a satisfactory comb cleaner, but there is no doubt whatever that some backwoods damsels regard it as a love charm.”
In Cherokee the word for turkey is “gvna ᎬᎾ” and the bird figures into a lot of Cherokee tales (and tales of many other Native American groups). Here are a few turkey tales from Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee:
How the Turkey Got His Beard
When the Terrapin won the race from the Rabbit all the animals wondered and talked about it a great deal, because they had always thought the Terrapin slow, although they knew that he was a warrior and had many conjuring secrets beside. But the Turkey was not satisfied and told the others there must be some trick about it. Said he, “I know the Terrapin can’t run–he can hardly crawl–and I’m going to try him.”
So one day the Turkey met the Terrapin coming home from war with a fresh scalp hanging from his neck and dragging on the ground as he traveled. The Turkey laughed at the sight and said: “That scalp don’t look right on you. Your neck is too short and low down to wear it that way. Let me show you.”
The Terrapin agreed and gave the scalp to the Turkey, who fastened it around his neck. “Now,” said the Turkey, “I’ll walk a little way and you can see how it looks.” So he walked ahead a short distance and then turned and asked the Terrapin how he liked it. Said the Terrapin, “It looks very nice; it becomes you.”
“Now I’ll fix it in a different way and let you see how it looks,” said the Turkey. So he gave the string another pull and walked ahead again. “O, that looks very nice,” said the Terrapin. But the Turkey kept on walking, and when the Terrapin called to him to bring back the scalp he only walked faster and broke into a run. Then the Terrapin got out his bow and by his conjuring art shot a number of cane splints into the Turkey’s leg to cripple him so that he could not run, which accounts for all the many small bones in the Turkey’s leg, that are of no use whatever; but the Terrapin never caught the Turkey, who still wears the scalp from his neck.
Why the Turkey Gobbles
The Grouse used to have a fine voice and a good halloo in the ballplay. All the animals and birds used to play ball in those days and were just as proud of a loud halloo as the ball players of today. The Turkey had not a good voice, so he asked the Grouse to give him lessons. The Grouse agreed to teach him, but wanted pay for his trouble, and the Turkey promised to give him some feathers to make himself a collar. That is how the Grouse got his collar of turkey feathers. They began the lessons and the Turkey learned very fast until the Grouse thought it was time to try his voice. “Now,” said the Grouse, “I’ll stand on this hollow log, and when I give the signal by tapping on it, you must halloo as loudly as you can.” So he got upon the log ready to tap on it, as a Grouse does, but when he gave the signal the Turkey was so eager and excited that he could not raise his voice for a shout, but only gobbled, and ever since then he gobbles whenever he hears a noise.
How the Wildcat Caught the Gobbler
The Wildcat once caught the Rabbit and was about to kill him, when the Rabbit begged for his life, saying: “I’m so small I would make only a mouthful for you, but if you let me go I’ll show you where you can get a whole drove of Turkeys.” So the Wildcat let him up and went with him to where the Turkeys were.
When they came near the place the Rabbit said to the Wildcat, “Now, you must do just as I say. Lie down as if you were dead and don’t move, even if I kick you, but when I give the word jump up and catch the largest one there.” The Wildcat agreed and stretched out as if dead, while the Rabbit gathered some rotten wood and crumbled it over his eyes and nose to make them look flyblown, so that the Turkeys would think he had been dead some time.
Then the Rabbit went over to the Turkeys and said, in a sociable way, “Here, I’ve found our old enemy, the Wildcat, lying dead in the trail. Let’s have a dance over him.” The Turkeys were very doubtful, but finally went with him to where the Wildcat was lying in the road as if dead. Now, the Rabbit had a good voice and was a great dance leader, so he said, “I’ll lead the song and you dance around him.” The Turkeys thought that fine, so the Rabbit took a stick to beat time and began to sing: “Gălăgi′na hasuyak′, Gălăgi′na hasuyak′ (pick out the Gobbler, pick out the Gobbler).”
“Why do you say that?” said the old Turkey. “O, that’s all right,” said the Rabbit, “that’s just the way he does, and we sing about it.” He started the song again and the Turkeys began to dance around the Wildcat. When they had gone around several times the Rabbit said, “Now go up and hit him, as we do in the war dance.” So the Turkeys, thinking the Wildcat surely dead, crowded in close around him and the old gobbler kicked him. Then the Rabbit drummed hard and sang his loudest, “Pick out the Gobbler, pick out the Gobbler,” and the Wildcat jumped up and caught the Gobbler.