Handle With Care

Bright red, orange, and yellow geometric patterns emblazon the shirt worn by Martin Two Feathers. Its Native American design shows off his heritage, and its lack of sleeves displays his meaty arms, which at the moment are straining to hold shut the jaws of a 300-pound American alligator named Joe. Under such circumstances it's tough to believe what he tells a crowd of onlookers: "We need this creature as much as Florida needs rain. The Indians knew that thousands of years ago."

With that statement Two Feathers begins each alligator-handling demonstration at Knollwood Groves in Boynton Beach. For six years he's been jumping into the mud with gators in order to educate kids about the importance of -- and dangers posed by -- the reptiles. And his focus, he says, is education, not showmanship. "[Other handlers] do what I call special effects for photographers," he says, alluding to the old head-in-the-mouth routine.

Education is the key to preventing alligator attacks and preserving the species, the numbers of which are dwindling. Two Feathers tells folks how alligators prevent disease by killing sick animals, for example, and how the "gator holes" they dig -- basins that catch water during the rainy season and retain it during drier times -- enable some 400 other species to survive.

Knollwood Groves is an ideal setting in which to spread the word. Standing beneath a 1500-year-old jungle hammock as Two Feathers spews out gator facts, you get a feel for what things must have been like before humans and gators coexisted. Founded in 1930 by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (stars of radio's Amos 'n' Andy), Knollwood Groves originally consisted of 108 acres. It has shrunk to 30 acres but still produces more than 30 types of citrus fruit. Visitors take tours and sample produce. And, of course, they check out the gator show.

Two Feathers, a 54-year-old Blackfoot Indian who grew up on a Montana reservation, has bachelor's degrees in history and education from Tulane University and one in art from the University of Montana. At UM he met a Seminole woman from the tribe's Tampa reservation and moved there to be with her. Under the tutelage of Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry, he spent four years learning alligator-handling and Everglades survival, then honed his skills by trapping stray gators in Tampa neighborhoods before moving to South Florida.

When he's not going after gators, Two Feathers paints and writes. His Eagle Medicine Robe, a children's book of Indian lore, was published earlier this year, and he intends to complete a trilogy in the hope of instilling values in children. "It seems that values have been lost," he says.

As a painter Two Feathers specializes in Native American art and works in a variety of media: pen and ink, pastels, watercolors, and oils. His paintings are on display in Knollwood's gift shop, and one -- a portrait of his grandfather -- hangs in one of the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C.

"[Time] freezes," Two Feathers says. "If you paint a face or a scene, it stays that way forever."

He hopes to have his work and its messages immortalized in yet another medium. His recently completed screenplay, A Black Horse in the White House, tells the tale of a Native American who is elected President and cleans up the environment. He says that people working for Robert Redford and Jane Fonda have already expressed interest in the screenplay.

That's good news to Two Feathers, because a widely distributed movie would help spread his message. "When I was a little boy, my grandfather [taught me] that it's up to me to spend my life caring for this Earth," he says. "Maybe I'll make a difference one day."

-- Robyn A. Friedman

Martin Two Feathers gives his alligator presentation at 2 p.m. every Saturday at Knollwood Groves, 8053 Lawrence Rd., Boynton Beach. From December 26 to 31, the program will be presented daily at 2 p.m. Admission prices are $3 and $5. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Call 800-222-9696.

 
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