Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Production

Article: Bows and Arrows

As described by First Boy - James Larpentuer Long, Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux, in The Assiniboine: From Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long), edited by Michael Stephen Kennedy , University of Oklahoma Press, 1961, p 97-99 (originally published as Land of the Nakoda by the Montana Writer Program in 1942)

Before the whiteman’s gun was traded for, the bow and arrow was the Assiniboines' principal weapon both for hunting game and for warfare. On long trips, extra bows were always carried by the warriors.

Bows were made from chokecherry, ash, and bur or scrub oak, but bur oak was considered the best material for a de-pendable bow.

A first-class bow was made very carefully by the men. The length was varied to suit the user. After the bow was shaped, the back was grooved diagonally, at intervals, the full length, in order to hold the glue, which was made by boiling hoof ten-dons and other cords from the buffalo into a jelly.

A thin coat of this glue was spread over the entire back of the bow. Next, two wet sinews were pasted on, with the butt ends together at the middle and the thin ends extending each way. More glue was spread over the whole back and imme-diately sprinkled with powdered white clay. After that coat was partly dried, still more glue was put on and the bow again sprinkled with clay. This treatment was repeated several times. The number of coats determined how strong the bow would be. Some men used very flexible bows, while others did not want the kind of bows that, after a shot, sprang back and snapped the wrist with the bow string. Those who had strong wrists preferred heavy bows because, in a sudden draw, a strong man could break a light-weight bow.

After several coats of the glue mixture had been applied, the bow was a transparent grayish color. To finish the job, the back was decorated in different designs with colored paints. Then it was coated once more with glue to preserve the colors. The middle of the bow was wrapped with a piece of buckskin ap-proximating the width of the hand. Colored horse mane or human hair taken from an enemy was tied to the top of the bow.

On some bows a sharpened prong, made from the horn of an elk, was attached to one end to be used in battle as a bayonet after a warrior had shot away all his arrows.

Six kinds of arrows were used, the difference being in the points. They were the flint, the bone, the iron, the arrow that tapered to a sharp point, the dull-pointed target arrow, and the knob-headed arrow used for either target or game.

The second-growth woods most used for arrows were the june-berry and chokecherry. Currant was not often used because, while it was straight and smooth, without any knots, it was easily split.

Juneberry arrows were the finest. This second-growth wood was straight, without a knot. It was also branchless and uni-form in diameter for about three feet. Fully cured, the wood resembled hardwood.

The customary method of measuring the length of an arrow was to grasp the stick so that the butt w-as even with the bottom of the left hand, then measure hand over hand six times. The length usually measured twenty-four inches.

The feathers used for arrows were taken from the wings of large hawks and eagles. They were split in two, the edges scraped thin, and glued to the arrow. The ends were fastened in place by wrapping them with wet sinew. Two halved feathers were generally used; three and four were also popular. The long, single half-feather, pasted on the arrow in spiral fashion, was not often used.

A pointed arrow without feathers nose-dived when shot. But the knob-head arrow was often used without feathers, as it was practical either way. Boys used the knobbed arrow for practice and sports. Thirty arrows made a full quiver.

Small bows and arrows were used by boys at an early age. Their bows usually were made of chokecherry wood. Tall Slough grass, dried and cut to suitable lengths, served as arrows, which were shot with the hard butts or joints against the bow string.