Recently, I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to be seen and so I sorted through the magazines, found one on hunting, and leafed through it. I came across a section describing the latest and greatest hunting gear hitting the market including bows, arrows and other archery accessories. The bows’ prices ranged from a low of $749 to a high of $1,600. As I read through descriptions detailing why they deserved those price tags, I reflected on stories that my father had shared with me when I was a boy about when he was a boy growing up in Winona, Minnesota, near a band of Winnebago Indians.
Most Native Americans used a shorter bow than other primitive people. The standard hunting bow was less than five feet long, and some of the most convenient ones were only four feet.
The best bows were made of young elm, oak, hickory, ash, and dogwood. Ironwood was also preferred, but not commonly found. There were also elk horn and Rocky Mountain sheep horn bows, as well as buffalo rib bows, which were worked to perfect shape by the use of steam. They were usually made in two pieces, very difficult to make, and highly prized. A boy’s ordinary bow was made of any kind of wood, but always that from a sapling, so as to get the necessary elasticity.
The continuous curve bow was not a style used by Indians. They made their bows so they were concave on the ends and convex in the middle because it was easier to control and didn’t jerk the arrow off its true direction. As soon as the Indian had shaped his bow by whittling it, he dried it into its proper form, and oiled it while seasoning the bow to keep it supple. When thoroughly seasoned, he finished it by scraping and rubbing the bow with natural sandstone. He then tightly wound each end and the middle with flat sinew and notched the ends for the bowstring. The best bowstrings were made of sinew, though wild hemp and other materials were also used on occasion.
Throughout their native lifestyles, the Indian never saw arrows made of split wood. The young chokecherry and Juneberry furnished most of their arrows, though the coast tribes sometimes used reeds. The usual length was twenty-eight inches, including the head. They were about one-fourth of an inch in diameter and very light. The man’s arrow was feathered with three feathers five inches long, but most boys’ arrows had but two feathers, and these may be anywhere from two to five inches long, and were curved around the body of the arrow in screw fashion in order to make the arrow fly straight.
The Indians made arrow-heads of bone, horn, claws and bills of birds, and sometimes of clam shells. After the coming of the white man, they used iron. The stone arrow-head was apparently used by an even earlier race of people because they are too heavy to be used effectively with the native American arrows from more recent centuries. The Indian children would pick up stone arrow heads and play with them as a novelty much as might be the case today. Occasionally, a practical use for them was attempted, such as for shooting fish, but that’s about it. A boy’s arrow usually had no head at all. It would merely be sharpened at the point, or carved with a knob on the end, in which case no feather was needed. This was the safest and most convenient weapon for shooting in the woods, for it brought down all small birds and animals, and was readily recovered.