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The Native American Indian
In life there is always one movie that really stands out and has an immense impact on one's life. Anton de Witt writes about the impact such a film had on him and how it sent him on an archery journey.
I was about 13 when I saw the movie Geronimo and if I can remember correctly it featured Charles Bronson in the lead role. I was mesmerised, not by the story or the character, or even the acting; what grabbed my attention were the bows the Native American Indians used – primitive to the extreme, but highly effective.
With no internet in those days, I spent the next few months visiting libraries and museums to learn more about these fascinating weapons. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
The thought of making my own bow started out as an idea, but over the years grew into something of an obsession. I just had to be part of that awesome history.
A wise old lady once asked me if I believed in reincarnation, because she believed that I had been a Native American in my previous life. Well, I would love to believe that reincarnation exists, but so far the only proof we have is that Jan van Riebeeck came back as coffee, so my ancestors wouldn't have been able to help me make my first bow anyway. I had to find another way…
It was only years later that, while browsing the internet, I accidentally found a site on how to build your own English longbow. The author explained in detail the ins and outs of creating these magical objects and in so doing made it look quite… um… easy. Yeah, right!
On the first full draw, the almost two-metre-long ash bow snapped in half – the top limb came down with such force that it drum rolled in my head, and for a moment I had visions of strolling throughSherwood forest hearing the birds happily chirping away.
My friend suggested I buy a helmet and keep trying, but there had to be a better way to make bows that were effective and most of all, safer to use. I started researching the history of bowmaking in general and learned some fascinating facts about who made what kind of bows and how.
Although the art of making and shooting bows has been around for more than 40 000 years, it was people like the Assyrians who put their recurve shooting archers on horseback and used them with devastating effect against the enemy.
Much later the feared Huns took horseback archery to a whole new level. At full gallop their prowess with the horn and sinew bows was legendary. Combine the talents of these two great horse archery warriors and you have the Native American Indian.
Although there's evidence that the Indians had been using bows for thousands of years it wasn't until about 500AD that this finely tuned weapon came to the fore among the tribes. Before that they relied mostly on their spears and axes to hunt and do battle with. The bow and arrow added a whole new dimension to their everyday life.
Unlike the Huns with their powerful bows, most Indian tribes preferred lighter bows of between 45 and 50 pounds. These bows varied in length and width, but had one aspect in common – the limbs were shaped flat and were tapered from the riser or handle area to the tips. Most importantly, they were unbacked.
Each tribe had their bowyers, but the art of bowmaking was also handed down from father to son. Different woods were used to make these bows, depending on where each tribe found themselves. Woods such as ash, locust, hickory, oak, birch, Osage orange, choke cherry, service berry and even mullbery were preferred. Staves were cut down and split to speed up the drying process and finally shaped into bows that were lightweight and quick. To finish off, the bow strings were made either from plant fibre or tendons cut from the back legs of animals such as deer or bison.
No bow is complete without arrows and most Indians used reeds or shoots cut from trees such as black locust, dogwood or wild rose. These shoots were then shaved, sanded and heat-straightened. Fletching was done by tying vulture, eagle, turkey or owl feathers to the arrow rods using rawhide or sinew.
At first the Indians made their broadheads from flint, but in later years bone and glass were added to the menu and some tribes became so good at making them that they used them to trade.
The most common method of attaching the arrow to a shaft was to cut a splice out of the front. The broadhead was then inserted and fastened with a length of wet sinew and left to dry.
They say the Huns invented and perfected stirrups to enable them to stand up and fire back over their shoulders, but the Indians rode bareback and could fire arrows in quick succession in any direction accurately. If you ever run into General Custer's ghost he will tell you a great deal about the Indians' prowess with their bows. At the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 the Cheyenne and Hunkpapa Sioux, led by Crazy Horse, turned him and a few hundred of his men into human porcupines in one of Americas biggest battle disasters.
Two tribes do stand out from the rest though; the Apaches because they used poison on their broadblades, and the Penobscot Indians who were arguably the first archers to use a type of compound bow.
The Apaches were like the other tribes, aggressive and fearless warriors, but like our Khoisan, mostly small in stature. Like the Khoisan they also used low-poundage bows. Their walk-and-stalk abilities were legendary, but it was their use of poison-tipped arrows that made them so feared. Poison was obtained by catching a rattler and having him nibble on a fresh piece of liver, which was then left to rot in the sun for a few days. Arrow heads would then be dipped in this deadly concoction and left to dry. Just a small nick would cause a slow and painful death.
The Penobscot Indians were famous for their beadwork and basket weaving, but what really set them apart from the other nations was the ingenious way they made their bows. They would make two bows of different sizes. The longer of the two (60 inches) would then be fastened with hide glue and sinew to the belly of the shorter bow (40 inches). The string would then be tied to the tips of the shorter bow and taken over the tips of the longer bow to create a powerful compound-like bow that was smooth to draw and quick as lightning.
Towards the late 1800s most Indian tribes had been placed on reservations, and with no wars to fight and little or no hunting to do the art of making those famous flat bows would have certainly been lost to all future generations were it not for a Yahi Indian called Ishi.
This amazing hunter-gatherer was one of the last survivors of his tribe and when a group of surveyors found his camp hidden in some brush in 1908 he introduced the civilised world to the remarkable skills of the Indian bowmakers. The story of Ishi is well documented because he lived out the last years of his life under the care of Dr Saxton Pope of the University of California until his death in 1916.
Not only did he share the secrets of how Indians survived in the wild, but his skills as a bowyer, tracker and hunter inspired such legends as Howard Hill and Fred Bear to become true greats and, more than anything, made traditional archery as hugely popular as it is today.