Cultural Signatures: Lakota Bows

Father Eugene Buechel was meticulous in his documentation of Lakota life. While he had particular areas of interest—tools and functional objects such as scrapers, blades, spoons, and parfleche carrying cases was one area of interest, gaming pieces was another—his notes and system of classifying what he acquired show how he attempted to provide a complete catalogue of all aspects of Lakota life. Men’s activities, women’s activities, children’s activities, daily work, ceremonial life, leisure activity were all included in his efforts to create a record of the lives of the people around him. Towards the end of his life, he is quoted as seeing his museum as a means “to keep intact the heritage of the Sioux, the history of their nations, and the memory of their customs and folklore.”

To that end he took care to include pieces that testified to the traditions that had sustained the Lakota people, even as some of these traditions were changing and being replaced by other ways of life. The bows, arrows, related tools and accessories found in the Museum’s collection are examples of what life had been and how it had changed. Before the loss of territory because of ruptured treaties, Indian wars, and the encroachment of land by EuroAmerican settlers, before the near eradication of the buffalo, and before the pressures of assimilationist policies that sought to redefine Lakota cultural patterns, social practices and religious orientations, hunting, especially the communal buffalo hunt, had been a mainstay of life. It provided not only food, but an almost complete range of the other necessities of life. The hides upon which to record the winter counts, to serve as bedding, to provide tipi covers, the sinew that was used to stitch the hides together, or make cordage for other uses, bones that provided materials for tools—these and many other features of traditional life, including spiritual understandings, were the gifts of this relationship with the buffalo. Communal life depended upon it, so much so that a man who went out alone on a buffalo hunt was punished.

The bow, a finely crafted but almost indiscrete object, functional, but without vivid ornamentation, served to enable that way of life. With its fluid double-curved design, its beauty was vested in its power. As a tool essential in pre-reservation life, a Lakota bow needed the capacity and strength to allow hunters to bring buffalo back to the waiting encampment of families. The bow provided a means of nourishing the people. As Diane Crow Dog, an elder from Rosebud explains, the bow was a blessing, not a weapon, a survival kit, a caretaker, which helped sustain and maintain life for generations. In Lakota accounts of creation, the bow was given to the people when they were led by the wolf from the subterranean cavern into this world where survival required knowledge of how to hunt–and also an ability to defend the people.

A hunting tool and a weapon of war, the bow could sustain life and also take it away. Black Elk, an Oglala from Pine Ridge, spoke of this in the account of his life that he related to John Neihardt. At the age of nine, he was given a vision where at one point the first Grandfather of the westerly direction put a bowl of water in one hand and a bow in the other, the one the power to make live, the other the power to take life away.

Bows in the Buechel Collection

The Buechel collection contains a good selection of bows, 14 in total, 11 of them men’s bows, the others examples of youth and children’s bows. Most were obtained around 1915, with a few acquired in the next decade. Each bow is distinctive, but they share an affinity that makes them recognizably Lakota. The way the woods are worked, the way their form is envisaged, the way they are shaped—these design elements and others point to a shared understanding of what a bow ought to be and how it ought to perform. This conception of how a bow should look, evident in the bows Father Buechel obtained and evident in other Lakota bows that have managed to survive elsewhere, reflects a cultural signature of the Lakota nation. The material that follows will discuss this signature as it is found in this collection of bows.

A Lakota Signature

Lakota bows tend to be double-curved bows with narrow, tapered limbs. In technical terms, the characteristic double-curve profile is what is known as a reflex-deflex bow. The grip area is set back (this is called a reflexed curve); the limbs move out of the grip area at a angle and then are curved back, resulting in the deflex curves. Lakota bows are not radically reflexed or deflexed, in that the arc where the grip is set back is not sharp or radical, but is instead a gentle arc. Likewise, the curve of the limbs is graceful, not sharp, giving them what can be described as their fluid double-curved appearance. On some, the bow-maker slightly recurved the limbs some inches above grooved nocks which held the bow string in place.

The reflex-deflex or double-curve design creates a bow that utilizes a combination of push-pull effects of the multiple curves to give greater energy to its working limbs. A more radical reflex-deflex would give the bow even more energy, but the reason Lakota bows are more fluid in shape relates to the limitations of their materials. With some exceptions, most Lakota bows are selfbows, meaning that they are fashioned out of a single piece of wood. The term selfbow indicates that the bow was made from itself, or from its own wood. No matter how well crafted a selfbow is, its abilites are limited to the extent to which its wood can withstand the stress of bending and then springing back without breaking. A more radical set in the curves could perhaps work for a couple of arrows, but the wood at the critical stress points on the bow’s limbs would likely splinter or break upon repeated used. There would be too much stress on the limbs and they wouldn’t be able to stand up to repeated use for any length of time.

Composite bows–bows made out of a combination of different woods and other materials, usually horn, sinew and wood–can endure that stress. The properties of the different materials, such as horn which can withstand compression and sinew which has extraordinary elasticity, allow for more radical curves that could concentrate even more energy in the bow’s working limbs. Various historical and other sources record the use among different Native American nations, including the Lakota, of composite bows made from combinations of buffalo rib and wood and also from wood, sinew, and horn obtained from bighorn sheep. Such composite bows, some of which were known as medicine bows, were, however, less common, in part because their materials, especially the horn, were not as readily available and in part because their crafting, involving the preparation and gluing together of the component parts, the application of several layers of finely shredded sinew, and a complicated tillering process, required more steps and a longer period of time from start to finish. No composite examples are found in Father Buechel’s collection. Some are backed with linen, parchment, sinew or other materials, but all are either selfbows or selfbows with backings. None is a wood composite or wood, horn and sinew composite. By and large, the bows Father Buechel obtained were made from wood that was locally available and with one notable exception, both the children’s and adult bows follow a fluid, double-curved profile.

Within that profile is a highly sophisticated bow that shows a good understanding of just how to work wood to create a finely tuned and powerful instrument. That understanding shows up in tapering of the limbs. All the bows in the collection are relatively narrow; they are neither massive nor wide, though some are stouter than others, reflecting the work of different bow-makers and some difference in the bows’ weight. Weight is determined by how much stength it takes to pull back the bow string; a bow that requires more strength generally, but not always, casts an arrow that has more distance and penetrating power. A lighter bows that is finely crafted can out-perform a heavier, but more sluggish bow. The difference is found in the tillering and tapering that determines how well the limbs are balanced and how much energy is concentrated in the arrow when the bow string is released. On selfbows attention is given to the growth rings of the wood and how much wood can be left on or shaved off during tillering. Attention is also paid to the relationship between the back and belly of the bow. The belly is the side that faces the archer; what it needs to do, namely take the compression of being bent inward, puts a different stress on that side of the bow than on the back, where there is greater danger of wood fibers lifting when the bow is drawn. Both back and belly are worked during the making of a bow, with most of tillering done by working the wood on the belly. On several of the bows in the collection, you can see evidence of how wood was scraped from the belly side, and also how the bow maker worked with the growth rings, following them even around knots on the back side of the bow.

The tillering was done in conjunction with the tapering of the bows limbs and it is here that the bow-makers’ skills are evident. When you look at any of the bows in the collection, the obvious taper you see shows up in the changing width of the bow limbs. From the grip to the tip, the bow narrows. Likewise, there is an overall decrease in the mass of wood measured in the limb’s diameter from grip to tip. But that is only part of the story. It’s what is happening in the cross section of the limbs that is important. The cross sections are what you’d see if you sliced a bow up like a loaf of bread and then examined the shape of each of the slices. If you had a bow in front of you and were able to look at it closely, you would be able to see right away how the cross-sections of the limbs change shape. It is, however, difficult to try to put into words what your eye or finger can trace out when the bows are right in front of you. Even photographs don’t do justice to their three dimensional qualities. The cross-sections are neither flat (like a board) nor D-shaped (flat on the back and rounded on the belly, like the letter D on its side); instead, they look like a flattened oval (or what you might call an elliptical cross-section) that changes its contours as it moves through the working segments of the bows’ limbs. In other words, the shape of the limbs as seen in the cross-sections change in relation to where on the limb you’re looking—whether at the grip or at different points along the curvature of limbs or towards the nocks. The diagram sketches out how the contours of the cross-sections change in shape.

A further tapering was done on the limbs’ edges as they got closer to the nock ends. Some 3 inches up from where the bow strings are tied, the bow-maker shaved wood from the edges of the limbs—on the edges, and not on the back or belly where shaving of the wood would interfer with the tillering of the bow. What resulted in this side-tapering were limb tips that could withstand more bending. They served to relieve some pressure from the main stress points of the working curves when the bows were drawn. It also allowed the bows to be shorter in length without sacrificing any of their strength.

The resulting profile is not simply for looks; it serves to maximize the energy of the working curves, making the bows powerful for their poundage, while still manoeuvrable on horseback. The fluid double-curving of the limbs, in combination with their elliptical cross-section, allows these short bows to pack a punch. As the bow string is pulled back and up to the moment of the arrow’s release, the working relationship in the limbs’ taperings build up the energy that concentrates in the arrow, giving it its velocity and thrust, or power of impact. The bow-makers who in working the wood that became a bow paid attention to width, thickness and also the efficiency of changing the elliptical profiles of the limbs. They made bows that fit their understanding of what bows ought to be.

White Hawk (Ćetaη’ska), a Lakota man from the Standing Rock Reservation who worked with the anthropologist Frances Densmore in the early decades of the twentieth century put that sentiment into words: a good bow would see the arrow point embedded in the flesh of the buffalo; an excellent bow would see the arrow shaft driven in almost up to the fletches; a fine bow would send the same arrow clear through the animal.

The design features shared among Lakota bows can be summarized as follows:

The limbs inevitably show a gentle tapering in their width. The widest part, though never very wide, is always in the area of the grip, and then the limbs thin out as they move towards their nock ends. This tapering works within recognized parameters of the relationship between the greatest allowable width in the grip area to the smaller width by the nocks.

 In a working relationship with this tapering of width, the thickness of the limbs also decreases from grip are to nock. On one bow, the narrowest sections of the limbs were not at the nock ends, but just at where the shoulders—the deflex curves—begin. This thinning (or flattening of the elliptical cross-section) is close to mid-limb, and serves to enhance the bending of the limb.

 The bows have a set-back grip area, or start in the grip area with a reflex curve. The limbs move from the set-back grip into gentle deflex curves. Then, right towards the nock ends there is again a slight reflex. The resulting profile is best described as a fluid, graceful double-curved bow.

 The backs of the bows in cross-section show a working elliptical curve. Where the limb extends from the grip area, the back is more gently sloped, but as the limb moves towards what I call the shoulder of the bow, where deflexed curve is set, the arch of the limb back is high. In fact, that’s the highest arc of the limb back. Then, as the limb descends towards the nock ends the cross-section arc flattens out, until it is almost but never completely flat. On some, but not all bows, the nock ends are slightly reflexed. You can see the changes in the arc of the back and you can also feel it by tracing your finger over the back of the bow.

 The working of the belly of the bow correlates to the working elliptical curve of the back. At first glance, the belly of the bow appears to be flat, but in fact it is also gently rounded. The gentle rounding flattens towards the nock ends, but never becomes completely flat. If you imagine a center-line drawn on the belly of the bow, that’s where you’ll always find the high point of the rounded shape of the belly, but that high point changes in relation to where you are on the limb. The biggest variation from edge of the limb to centre-line (giving a more arched cross-section) is where the deflexed curves are set, top and bottom limbs. That arc in the cross-section (or rounded form on the belly side of the bow) flattens down proportionately as you move both towards the nock ends of the bow and the grip area, with more flattening done towards the nock ends. None of these changes in the elliptical cross-sections is radical. These are discernible, but subtle movements in shape that work together when an arrow is released.

 About three inches up from the nock ends, the side edges of the bow limbs are shaved so the width of the limbs comes in for the last few inches. You can both see this and feel it. If you run your fingers along the side edges of the bow, as you’re coming down the limbs, you’ll feel their gentle tapering. The decrease in width is continuous until you start to get close to the nocks. Some few inches before you get to the nocks—generally about three inches or so—there is a sudden decrease. The limb tips are narrowed down, giving the tips more flex which in turn allows them to relieve some pressure from the main stress points of the working curve.

 Ash was a preferred wood, reflected in its use in several of the bows in the collection. Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala from Pine Ridge who in the 1930s wrote about his traditional up-bringing, explains that ash was valued because of its good spring and because it was not so affected by the weather as other woods. Ironwood, elm and various other white woods also show up in the bows in the Buechel collection. Standing Bear mentions that hickory, cherry, plum, and even willow on occasion was used. Other sources identify cedar. and certain oak woods as used in Plains bows. Both plum and cherry wood show up in the children’s and youth bows. Of lighter poundage, the children’s bows were made from small saplings or thin branches split in half, with the bark of the wood making up the bow’s backing.

 Only one bow in the collection is made from osage orange, an excellent bow wood used elsewhere in North America. <image> Native to the southern plains, osage orange, also known as bois d'arc, or "bow-wood” thanks to French explorers who saw its extensive usage for bow-making in Native America, was highly prized for its resilience. Since the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations where Father Buechel worked were outside the natural range of osage orange, the wood used in this bow came into Lakota possession through trade, as war booty, or in some other way. Before the abbrogation of the treaties of 1851 and 1868 in the 1880s, Lakota territory extended to the Platte River in the south in what is now the state of Nebraska and to the Missouri River in the east. Naturalized stands osage are found that far north and east, and it is possible that this bow, made from osage, may have been made at an earlier time when the Lakota homeland was much larger or when the their movement was less restricted.

 The growth rings visible in the different adult bows show that none of the bow wood came from staves cut from large, old growth trees. <image> In an environment where trees were in short supply, that would be wasteful, not to mention being labor intensive in a society where prior to the introduction of trade metals, most tools were made from stone. Rather, the bow wood, even wood used for bows with a heavy poundage, came from smaller diameter trees, or even limbs, no larger in diameter than three or three and a half inches. To label it simply sapling wood is misleading. In the region’s harsh climate with its extremes in temperature, wood grows more slowly, producing hearty wood with the tight growth rings desirable for bow making even in trees with small diameter trunks. Some of the bows might have been made from second growth wood which is generally stronger than the original tree. Availability, the recognized quality of the wood’s performance, personal and cultural preferences and other factors influenced the choice of wood. As well, the way the wood was cured, both air-dried and smoked, gave it further strength and resilience.

 One technique was described some years back by a Lakota man from the Standing Rock Reservation. He remembered seeing one of his grandfathers set the reflex in green wood by bending it around a large cottonwood, tying it in place and leaving it there for the summer, letting the arid climate of the high plains do the curing for him. The craggy bark on the cottonwood tree allowed air circulation, while the size of the trunk of the tree helped the determine the set-back on the bow. Another technique used in pre-reservation days was to smoke the wood by suspending it for months above the cooking fires in the tipi. Wood tempered evenly over an extended period of time is more resilient and is less prone to breaking. Periodic applications of grease further preserved the bow’s life.

 Another characteristic of the bows in the collection is their length. They are all shorter bows, good for the buffalo hunt and for quick manoeuvering on horseback, in length from 39 to 48 inches with most in the 42-44 inch range. Luther Standing Bear, writing in the 1930s, states that preferred bows were no more than four and a half to five feet long, a length short in comparison with an English longbow that can be up to 72 inches long, but exceeding the length of any of the bows Father Buechel obtained. Standing Bear’s over-estimation of the preferred bow length may be telling of the way archery traditions began to change on the reservation. Father Buechel was an avid photographer, and one recurrent theme among the photos he took in the decades he lived at St. Francis show posed portraits of different youths holding a bow. A comparison of several of these photos show a lengthing of the bows available for the boys to hold, suggesting with the passage of time, the distance from actual buffalo hunts and the influence of English-style archery popular as a sporting tradition in American homes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were changes in the way even the profile of the bow was envisaged. The bows Father Buechel collected came from an earlier era; their design features give us an insight into Lakota cultural views of how a bow should look and how it should perform, the resources available for bow-making, and the conditions of a life which had close ties with the buffalo hunt.

 Arrow release was quick and instinctive, with no lengthy aiming--Luther Standing Bear uses the term “posing,” a reference to the stance of an English-style archer, to draw a contrast with his recollections of Lakota style. Draw length was relatively short–arrows were generally 22 to 23 inches long, but the ratio of the short length of the working bow limb to the length of the draw was significant. With the average length of a bow at 42-44 inches, and arrows at 22 inches, the bow limbs would be subject to significant stress–the bow would be nearly bent in half at the moment of the arrow’s release. The double-curve design, the taperings in the limbs and at the nock ends, and the snap-style of arrow release all helped maximize the energy and efficiency of the bow, while helping preserve the life of the bow. Prolonged stress was avoided with the quick arrow release. With this design, the bows—all self bows—didn’t need any sinew backing for reinforcement or help to keep wood fibers on the back of the bow from lifting. Nor did the bows need any sinew backing to enhance their performance. With their design features in place, the bow-makers didn’t need to go to any extra steps to get the kind of bow they needed.

 Scholars who have written about the importance of nonverbal thought in technology, suggest that the design elements which recur in tools and other objects important to a culture are often expressed as a mental template that informs the artisans’ sense of what is right. T hey envision the finished product as they shape it, following an intuitive sense of rightness and fitness or what can one scholar, Eugene Ferguson, called the “mind’s eye.” This “mind’s eye” doesn’t develop within a vacuum, but instead is realized within particular technological and cultural regimes which have their own parameters of usage and application. The way people exercises their skills and follow particular strategies to achieve desired outcomes reflect this internalized sense of rightness. It is not an external set of measurements they rely on as much as an appreciation of the form the object they are crafting and a sense of the way that form should be expressed. Modifications and technological refinements do occur, and certainly the final arbitrator of the worth of any object is whether it can do what it needs to do, but function and performance are not the only considerations. A sense of aesthetics is likewise important. In any culture, tools reflect need and artistic demands, a sense of “rightness” along with technological developments.

 A Closer Look at Several of the Bows in the Collection

 Since the records from the Museum’s database, accompanying this essay, provide description, reproductions of Father Buechel’s hand-written and typed records, and photo images of the bows and other archery goods that are found in the collection, it is not necessary to go into detailed discussion of each item. Instead, selected examples, chosen because they highlight certain qualities or because they have interesting stories to tell, will be discussed. Readers are encouraged to look at all the entries in the database for a more complete understanding of the archery materials in the collection.

 Some of Father Buechel’s records identify who made the bow or who he obtained it from. Not all, records, provide that information. Some, in fact, are rather vague, as is the record accompanying this bow. The record simply identifies it as a bow, itazipa, That’s a pity, because it is a beautiful bow and one would like to acknowledge the man who made it. The bow shows all the refinements discussed above: made from a small diameter piece of wood, shorter length, graceful double-curve profile, rounded belly, shaping on the bow’s back as the limbs move from the grip with a build-up of of thickness at the beginning of the working curves on the limbs, then side-tapering and flattening about a finger’s length above their tips. None of the changes in the limb cross-sections are harsh or overly pronounced. They are natural and subtle, but also purposeful. You can see the integrated flow of the limbs from grip to tips.

 On this bow, its string nocks are cut into the two sides of each limb. Some of the other bows in the collection have single, opposing nocks for the bow string, as seen in ths example. An advantage to opposing side nocks on the top and bottom limb side nocks it that they help keep the bow in alignment. The opposing pressure balances the limbs and keeps the string aligned on the bow. Single side nocks likewise appear on this bow. It was made from a wide piece of wood and is more rounded on the belly than some. The back of the bow gives some understanding of the steps bow-maker took in crafting the bow. After splitting the sapling or branch that the bow is made from, he then began shaping it. The bow wood has a pith, and the bow-maker built the bow around that pith, leaving it as the center line. On the bow’s back, he skinned the bark off. The next steps were to create the contours necessary for strength and endurance of the working limbs in a short bow. If your eyes follow the growth rings on the back, you can see how the bow-maker followed the grain, but strategically shaved wood from both sides where needed. The grain line of the bow’s back runs true, even though the shaving cuts through it on those places on the limb where its elliptical shape is produced. Most likely, the bow-maker worked both the back and belly of the bow, making adjustments in the shaping along the way. The diameter of the limbs and the way its curves are set suggests this bow could be up to an 80 pound bow. As was just mentioned, the bow has two side nocks.

 A more common way of cutting nocks appears on this well-tillered ash bow made by Old Man Black Wolf. The bottom limb is double-nocked; the top has only a one side nock. Bow strings were tied, typically by fastening a spliced a loop at the top tying a kind of hitch knot at the bottom, allowing the tension in the strung bow to be adjusted according to the temperature and humidity. On Old Man Black Wolf’s bow, the sinew string is tied at the bottom and looped at the top. Depending upon the bow-maker’s preference, some bows were tillered so the string would be slightly off-set, laying a little off to one side, instead of being perfectly centre. An arrow released from an off-set bow could have a little advantage in speed, because it could stabilize more quickly. A bow with asymmetic nocks (two on the bottom, one at the top) lent itself to an off-set string.

 One bow, made from what appeared to be an ironwood stave, showed the bark on the back. Tillering had been done on the belly side. It was painted with yellow pigment, perhaps an earth pigment. <image>. Another, with more reflex than several of the others, was backed with a linen-like cloth and had parchment paper covering the grip and nock ends. Coloring and designs appear frequently. This bow was obtained in 1915 from Old Man Lost Bear, who according to Father Buechels’ records, hunted with it over a half century prior. It is painted red, with a green grip. Old Man Lost Bear, or perhaps some one else finished the design with red striping and dot patterns on both sides. Father Buechel left no records as to the significance of the pattern, but Helen Blish, writing in the 1930s about markings men who were members of a Bow Society applied to their horses takes note of a dot pattern. These were emblems of hail, a protective design, also discussed by Clark Wissler in his study of Dakota/Lakota markings, which deterred an enemy’s bullets or arrows.

 One bow in the collection, identified by Buechel as a takintazipa (takan = sinew; itazipa = bow), is a more unusual piece. It is sinew-backed with the most radical reflex of all; the grip is set back some four inches, significantly more than any of the other bows. Its limbs are quite short, and sharply deflexed. Two strips of pounded buffalo back strap sinew (sinew that comes from along the backbone of the buffalo, covering the spinal column) were applied as a backing on the bow, one strip covering each limb, with their joint at the grip area of the bow. The sinew has been flattened, but there is no build-up or application of multiple layers of sinew, just the two strips of back strap. Over time, this backing has begun to detach itself, leaving visible air pockets between the backing and bow wood. Unless sealed, sinew continues to be affected by variable temperature and humidity, as does wood. That, as well as lack of use and care, and deterioration of the bonding, contributed to the separation of the sinew backing. The hide glue used as adhesive was made from the strip between the buffalo’s horns and back of its eyes.

 The limbs’ nock ends , where the bow string is tied on, are built up with wrappings of leg sinew. This wrapping, strengthening the tips and helping to prevent breakage, continues about a finger length up the limb. It is covered with what appears to be a very thin layer of parfleche or intestine. Although the back of the bow appears to be flat, it is not entirely flat, but is a moving oval, flatter than on some of the other bows to provde a surface for the sinew. The wood used in the bow is a choice piece. Its very fine grain lends itself to the more radical set of the curves in this bow. The entire bow is stained red.

 Father Buechel’s records indicate that he obtained the bow in April 1915, while he was working at the Holy Rosary Mission, on Pine Ridge. It came from Old Man Hušte, who in turn obtained it from his father-in-law, Red Hawk. James Walker, physician at the Pine Ridge Agency from 1896 to 1914 and known for his monograph on the Sun Dance and for his documentation of Lakota tradition and ritual, worked among others with a man named Red Hawk ( Ć eta η luta). Possibly the same person as Old Man Hušte’s father-in-law, Red Hawk’s life spanned nearly a century. He was born around 1829; a photograph of him taken in 1913 is part of the Wanamaker Collection at the University of Indiana and is published in Lakota Belief and Reitual. Walker consulted with many influential and holy men from Pine Ridge. Red Hawk, whom Walker interviewed, is identified as a wicasa wakan, a shaman (wicasa = man; wakan = holy, sacred) with knowledge of wakan iya, econpi, and lowanpi (sacred tradition or speech, ritual, and songs), who had Bear medicine, who talked with the spirits, and a warrior whose medicine protected him in war. The takintazipa, the unusual, deeply curved sinew-backed bow with its red color, may well be a type of medicine bow with ceremonial usage.

 A final bow for consideration here is part of a complete set. The bow, a matched complement of arrows, and cow hide shoulder set consisting of a bow case and attached quiver (in Lakota, wanju) were made by High Bald Eagle and obtained by Father Buechel in 1922. A photograph he took that same year shows High Bald Eagle, age 74, holding this bow. <Add image>. It is a self bow made from ash wood with a set in the grip that is deeper than most of the other bows, but not as deep as the sinew-backed bow just discussed. The grip is set back about 1½ inches. The set of the curves is beautifully balanced, with the arc of the limbs curving just right so the limb tips are at the same height as the set-back grip. This can be visualized if you can imagine holding the bow out horizontally with its belly downwards. The grip at its deflex and the two limbs tips trace out a perfectly straight plane. In this and in the way the wood is worked on the back and belly sides of the limbs to increase their energy, High Bald Eagle demonstrated his skills.

 The same refinement shows up in the set of arrows. There are 14 in total and include 7 tipped with smaller steel heads 3 with heavier heads, 3 that are untipped, and one fashioned into a self-tipped blunt head. Notwithstanding their three-quarters of a century in storage, the arrows are perfectly straight, and matched for weight and balance point. The arrows’ centre of balance is forward from the centre in proportion to the length of the fletching and the arrowhead. Some arrows have heavier shafting in relation to the heavier metal head.

 Another detail is their barrel-tapering, meaning that the diameter of the shaft is thickest at its centre and then decreases—or tapers—in size as it moves to both the tip and nock end. Barrel-tapering the arrow shaft makes it more aerodynamic. Without sacrificing spine weight, the arrow has less bulk, and for a variety of reasons relating to the physics of archery, a barrel-tapered arrow can clear the bow and straighten its flight more quickly after release than an untapered arrow.

 In this set, some are three-fletched with dyed turkey tail feathers; others have two fletches some 7 inches long. These would have a different flight trajectory, and like the blunt arrow, would be used when conditions or type of game warranted. Several of the arrows have small plume feathers tied fixed to the end quills of the fletching, to invoke the eagle to enhance the arrow’s flight. With the exception of the blunt arrow, each shaft has three jagged grooves running down it, blood lines to guide the bleeding of the living being the arrow has hit.

 The arrows are self-nocked. The shaft has been left thicker to allow the arrow to be held in a pinch draw, the groove for the bow string is cut into the wood and is reinforced with deer sinew wrapping. Each shaft has blue cresting about mid-point in the fletching. The entire set shows High Bald Eagle’s knowledge of the properties that make superb arrows as well as his workmanship.  

Bow Lance

 A characteristic of Lakota social organization up through the period of reservation settlement was the presence of different men’s and women’s societies. One prominent warrior society was the Tokala society, known in English as the Kit Fox Society, so named because, as Clark Wissler, an anthropologist writing in the early 20 th century put it, “its members are supposed to be as active and wily on the warpath as this little animal is known to be in his native state.” Generosity, care of the people, adherence to a high moral code, leadership, strict obligation to duty of membership, bravery, forebearance, cunning in warfare were qualities expected of any man invited to join the society. Within the Kit Fox Society were various ranks: leaders, pipe keepers, whip bearers, food bearers, and so on, all with their insignia of office. Of these, the office of lance bearer was important in battle. They were expected to lead and expose themselves to danger. One of the ceremonial songs on their installation reminded them, if there was anything difficult, anything dangerous, it was theirs to do. The bearer of the Tokala Bow Lance was expected to be even more defiant. Once the man who carried the bow lance into battle transferred the lance to from his right to his left hand, he was never to retreat. He was to stand his ground and if necessary, fight to his death.

 Father Buechel was able to include a Tokala Bow Lance in his collection. His notes speak of the lance as extremely rare, there being only one in any Tokala Society. It was made by two men, identified as Tetanka Cauhabaka and Cokula in his notes, and obtained in 1915 while at Holy Rosary Mission in Pine Ridge. The Bow Lance has the deflex-reflex shape of a bow and equipped with a sinew string, though it was never strung and used as a regular bow. The bottom limb was affixed with a large spear point, and when used against an enemy, it was thrust as a spear. At no time was it allowed to touch the ground, it would be laid on a bed of sage when it was not carried, and as a sacred object it was kept away from women on their moon time. When carried, it was always held upright by the center grip. On this Bow Lance the grip is wrapped with red tradecloth bound with muslin cordage. Feathered skin from an eagle’s powerful upper wing is fastened to the center of the bow, and bundles of eagle and magpie feathers are tied on along its body in four evenly separated places.

 Youth Bows

 The Buechel collection includes several sets of young boys’ bows, blunt-headed and self-nocked arrows used on small game, as well archery gaming pieces. Involving speed, quick movement and accuracy these games instilled in young boys the requisite skills they would need later in life when they would have to provide for their families and relatives.

 In design and shape the youth boys retain the same profile as adult men’s boys. The difference between the youth bows and the men’s bows rests in their size, and also in types of woods used. Boys’ bows are obviously smaller, sometimes very short, suggesting that they were made for young children. Little boys’ bows were known as icunksila wahinkpe, a name different from the word itazipa, used for men’s bows. Plum and choke cherry, workable wood that grew sometimes in abundance along the creek beds of these grasslands, were frequent choices for boys’ bows.  

One example is this set consisting of a bow and four matched arrows, some 14 inches long, that are unfletched made by a man from Pine Ridge named Old Man Pacer from whom Father Buechel commisioned a numer of pieces, especially children’s gaming pieces. It is from a narrow diameter plum branch or sapling, split in two, with the bark kept on the outer side, functioning as a bow-backing. The tillering and shaping was done on the inside or belly side. Evidence of the use of scrapers shows up here, indicating the care Old Man Pacer took in making this bow. With its fluid profile, its single nock on the top limb, double nock for the bow string on the bottom, the bow shares the cultural signature of an adult’s bow. Its difference rests in the length and in the unfletched, untipped arrows that accompany the set.

 Other youth bows are longer. One youth bow, made from plum wood was 36 inches in length; another, from choke cherry, was 33 inches. <image> Both have a single upper nock, and double bottom nock, in a typical fashion of the way Lakota archers looped and tied on their bowstrings. The boys’ arrows had no tips, apart from their tapered points. Traces of the way they were tied together for straightening during the tempering and curing process are still evident. Like the stripes on candy canes, the tracings left from the rawhide bindings run down the shafts. Among the boys’ arrows, some have heads that broadened out into blunt tips. These were used for certain games or for hunting birds and small game.

Among the items in the collection is another bow, part of a gaming set made by Old Man Pacer, dated to 1915. It is made from the dried flat part of a cactus tied to an ash stick, so it looks something like a wand. Called unkcéla pte (unkcéla = cactus; pte = female buffalo), the cactus represented a buffalo cow and was waved in the air as a target in a game that simulated a buffalo hunt. For the game to be successful, the boy who held the cactus wand had become a convincing buffalo cow, able to move and charge just like one, while the other players had to learn to adjust their movements accordingly. They had to be both accurate in their shots and quick in the movements, otherwise they were likely to get gored by the cactus piece. The arrows they used were made from solid wood, with blunted wooden ends, capable of doing some damage if the boy holding the target was hit, but not necessarily life-threatening. Still, the bruises they could leave provided enough incentive to learn how to dodge them. This game encouraged boys to appreciate and understand the ways of the buffalo, the first meat of the Lakota people, their connection going back to those beginning times when the buffalo nation agreed to give food, shelter, and sustenance to the people.

 The purpose of another target, made from slough grass which was twisted and bound with the inner bark of willow and then bent into a horseshoe shape, <image> was different. In this game, one boy used an arrow to toss the grass target as high up in the air as he could, while others attempted to shoot arrows through its hole before it hit the ground. Learning to gauge the trajectory of a moving object and coordinate the timing of the release of the arrow with that trajectory was the object here. These games, and others, were prepatory for the time when the boy would be ready to begin to assume the responsibilities of manhood.


As for the bow strings, there was an art to making them. For regular bow strings (example 1 and example 2), buffalo back sinew—from the male buffalo according to White Hawk—was used. Luther Standing Bear describes the two cords found along the backbone of the animal—which they scraped clean and dried by sticking it up against a tipi pole. When dry they would store it in a parfleche bag where it would keep almost indefinitely in the dry climate of the high plains. The buffalo sinew was also used for the seams in the tipis. According to Luther Standing Bear, this sinew contains a natural glue so whatever was to be bound was wrapped with wet cord, which when dried held itself together in an almost unbreakable binding

 The way bow string was made was to wet the shorter strands of sinew with saliva and then twist the strands by rubbing them back and forth on their knees. In the autumn of 2002, Diane Crow Dog, an elder from Rosebud, talked about how the bow string was made from the back sinew of a buffalo, “you take that buffalo sinew, wet it, work with it, because that’s the spinal cord so all the food you eat, everything has to generate your spinal cord and your life. Buffalo is a relative, close relative of ours, its symbol, it has a symbol like human being, so that’s why you have to use that, the buffalo, I don’t know what they use now, but that’s what, I’ve been told.” Showing us with a twisting motion of her hands, she said, “long time ago, it looked simple, looked like it was going to break, but it was blessed, you know, blessed.”

 Men always carried extra string with them, the set made by High Bald Eagle, discussed above, includes a spare bow string. When bows were strung, the brace height, or distance between the belly of the bow at the grip and the string, was generally kept low, maybe only a few inches. Longer bow strings reduced the space between the grip of the bow and the string, with the resulting effect of making the bow more energy efficient. This lower brace height gives the bow limbs a longer stroke; the limbs travel farther before being stopped by the bowstring, thus providing more energy to the arrow.

 At the same time, low brace heights can result in the string smacking the archer’s wrist. A little practice and skill can prevent that from happening, and as Standing Bear’s autobiography tells us, young boys dedicated a lot of time to develop their skills. Also, holding a bow more horizontally helps keep the wrist out of the way, allowing for a lower brace height. Drawings of strung bows that appear in winter counts and ledger art generally show bows with a low brace height.

 A hand guard, called napakaha in Lakota, made from female elk hide or buckskin, was tied over the left hand behind the thumb to protect it while shooting. The collection has two, one was obtained from Mrs. Little Cloud in 1915. Even then, according to Father Buechel’s notes, it was quite old. The other, smaller in size, was made by John Red Feather.

The technique of drawing a bow involved a combination of thumb and pinch draw. W.P. Clark, a captain in the Second Calvary who commanded a large number of Indian scouts during the military campaigns of 1876-77, gives a description of the gesture signalling “bow” in his work, Indian Sign Language:

 Bring left hand, back to left, well out in front and little to left of body, left forearm nearly horizontal, hand about the height of left breast; close the fingers except the index; place the extended thumb on the second finger, press the index finger around end and sides of thumb; carry the closed right hand, back nearly upwards, thumb extended, and pressing against second joint of index finger, so that back of second joint of this finger shall rest against back of thumb of left hand; then draw the right hand a little to right and well to rear, very slightly upwards.

 If you follow this description, you see a bow being held nearly horizontally, with the arrow shaft at nock end held by the thumb against the index finger, with the thumb of the bow hand serving as arrow rest. Follow the movements depicted and you get a feeling for the technique of shooting that might have brought down a buffalo. The elk hide guard protected the thumb from being cut by the fletches of the arrow. It may also have served to protect the wrist from the bow string.


 Like the bows, Lakota arrows have a distinctive appearance. The Buechel collection has several sets of metal-tipped, bone-tipped and blunt arrows. Either three-fletched or two-fletched, using soft feathers sometimes dyed in different colors, most arrows are in the 22-23 inch range, with some a little longer. According to Lakota sources that date to the early part of the 20 th century, turkey was especially prized but the bird had become scarce in the high plains by the late 19 th century and only warriors and hunter used turkey feathers; others resorted to hawk, crow, prairie chicken or duck feathers. Eagle and turkey hawk feathers were also sometimes used for fletching. In the Buechel collection, turkey tail is the most frequently used fletching, sometimes by itself and sometimes in combination with turkey wing, hawk, and other feathers. Eagle feathers appear on the three-fletched arrows in a set of blunt arrows (in Lakota, miwostake), used as birding arrows, and among the fletches in arrows from other sets (example 1 -- example 2 -- example 3). One set of 7 arrows, made from June berry (Lakota, wipazukan) by obtained from Old Man Wounded in May 1915, includes one unique arrow in thicker shafting, fletched with two hawk and one eagle feather. Eagle feathers were also used on the blunt arrow in High Bald Eagle’s set. On most arrows in the collection, the fletches were glued, and then tied at their top and bottom. Deer sinew was usually used here because it is soft and can be worked very fine. Sometimes the feathers were split, leaving little of the quill, before they were tied on, sometimes not.

 A glue stick (conpeska), looking like something you’d find in any archer’s kit, was sometimes used to fasten feathers on arrows, and also for putting on arrowheads. They made the glue by boiling buffalo heads until they obtained a good thick consistency. Stirring it as it cooled gave them their glue sticks. Such glue keeps almost indefinitely; one of the sticks was over thirty years old when Father Buechel obtained it in 1915 from an elder named Buffalo Back. Another in the collection came from Joseph Bad Yellow Hair. Just like hot melt, the glue was softened by holding it in a fire.

 A goodly number of the arrows have plume feathers or fluffs, in their natural white or dyed in more vivid reds and pinks, fastened to the bottom of the fletches. Red fluffs and paint markings can be seen on several of these arrows, obtained in 1915 from Old Man Little Soldier, who in turn inherited them from his father. Each man signed his arrows with recognizable marks or paint cresting on the arrow shafting midway in the fletching, or with dyed banding or used certain feather combinations or dyed fletchings. These markings had both personal and religious significance and would identify who had been successful in the hunt or in war.

Another signature appears in the way the fletches were cut. Lakota fletching tends to be long and thin, less wind resistant, but allowing a stable flight. Fast, and good for distance. Six and even 7 inch long fletching is not uncommon. On a number of the arrows in the collection, the arrow-makers trimmed the fletches in a manner so as to leave the very last of the feathers’ barbs significantly longer than the rest of the fletching. This trimming can be seen in the top arrow of this set. Resembling an animal’s whiskers, fletches trimmed like this make a slight whistling sound as they fly. Most arrows have the characteristic grooving in the shafting–three grooves or blood lines, most often zig-zagged, but sometimes fairly straight. Arrow tips were often heat-treated to harden them and give them more strength, and to finish them off, they were sometimes smeared with buffalo blood–tp enable the shaft to pass more smoothly through the animal–or stained red or in other colours.

 According to White Hawk, who worked with Frances Densmore around the same time that Father Buechel was doing much of his collecting of the archery materials, preferred wood for arrows was juneberry, also known as service berry (Almelanchier alnifolia) and wild currant (Ribes americanum). Their resilience and light weight were valued; White Hawk explained that these woods were flexible enough that if a buffalo fell on an arrow, it would bend without breaking and thus could be recovered for further use. Woods used in the arrows in the Buechel collection also include willow and cherry.

 Arrow were rounded and polished through the use of a whetstones called wazipame. These were made from sandstone obtained in the Black Hills, sacred land for the Lakota nation. A matched set of good-sized stones, the size that easily fits in a man’s hand, were used, each piece was flat on one side with a groove running through the middle.The arrow maker held a matched pair of the sanding stones in one hand, while using the other hand to run the arrow shaft back and forth through the groove until he was satisfied with the shaft and its tapering. And, to ensure continued good quality shafts, the arrow maker cleaned the whetstone by wiping it with buckskin after use. When put away, it was also wrapped in buckskin.

 Arrows were measured by the distance from the elbow joint to the tip of the middle finger, and then back to the wrist (ie, the sum of the length from elbow to end of middle finger, plus tip of middle finger to wrist). The proper length of the arrow was gauged according to body size, specifically in proportion to length of the forearm, a means of measurement that is comparable to other traditional methods. All the arrows are well-balanced, with the balance point to the front of the centreof the shaft, even for the blunts which retained a sizable amount of the wood at the tip to create the blunt head. To make a blunt, the arrow-maker rounded the shafting, usually tapering it at the nock end, and then as the shaft moved towards the arrow tip, the shafting was fluted out to a near square cross-section which was in turn rounded. The end of the blunt was left convex, for greater impact on the bird or small game hunted with blunt arrows.

 The collection also includes a large number of stone arrowheads, mainly flint, which Father Buechel found in areas where he walked, in the washouts of creeks and even as far south as the sandhills outside of Valentine, Nebraska. They represent different sizes and shapes (example 1 - example 2 - example 3 - example 4 - example 5).

Some are barbed, others are triangular with no barbs, others are elongated (example 1 - example 2). Some were intended for use on spears, and not bows. Within these heads is another history of stone tools.

 Final Remarks

In talking about bows with Diane Crow Dog in the fall of 2002, she remarked:

 the reason why the bow has to be taken care of is because it is blessed. How you take care of it is how you take care of your children. The food men obtain when hunting is what is going to make you healthy and walk the life that was appointed for you in the future. How you are conceived and born, the food that nourishes you, all that had to do with the bow and arrow.

 The bow had a significant place in Lakota life in the late 19 th century. In what they tell us about the ways they were made, the ways they were cared for and the kinds of knowledge they carried in their form, the bows, arrows and related pieces in the Buechel collection reveal something of this tradition. Sit with them for a while and listen to what they have to say.

References and suggestions for further reading

Black Elk’s vision is given in chapter 3, “The Great Vision,” in Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux by Nicholas Black Elk as told through John G. Neihardt ( Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000). The work is available online, courtesy of the University of Nebraska Press. Father Buechel’s observations about the purpose of his collection comes from John M. Scott, “Black Eagle’s Dream Comes True,” in The Calumet 40/3,1953: 7, cited in Raymond Bucko, S.J., "Fr. Buechel's Ethnographic Museum," pp.2-3. Glady and Reginald Laubin describe horn composite bows made by Plains nations in Native American Archery (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 19XX), p.16. On how a buffalo hunt was organized and the communal responsibilities that were involved, see Chief High Bear’s explanations, given to Clark Wissler in 1912, and published in Societies and Ceremonial Associations in the Oglala Division of the Teton-Dakota. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York, 1912), vol. 11, part 1, p. 9. This same volume contains descriptions and first-person accounts of the different societies found among the Oglala, including the Tokala, or Kit Fox, Society.

Diane Crow Dog’s discussion of the place of the bow in Lakota life can be found in K.I. Koppedrayer and Mike One Star, “A Visit with Diane Crow Dog: Talking with an Elder about Lakota Bows,” in Primitive Archer, vol. 11, 2 (Summer 2003), pp. 10-18. Luther Standing Bear’s account of his childhood and his memories of hunting and archery games comes from My Indian Boyhood (Lincoln and London: The University of Nebraska Press, 1988 [originally published in 1931]), pages 20-23 and elsewhere. Helen Blish’s description of the Sacred Bow Society is found in “The Ceremony of the Sacred Bow of the Oglala Dakota,” American Anthropologist, vol. 36 (1934): pp. 180-87. Clark Wissler’s discussin of designs is found in Some Protective Designs of the Dakota, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York, 19XX), vol. 1, part 2.

White Hawk’s descriptions of bows and hunting appear in Frances Densmore, Teton Sioux Music and Culture (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992 [1918]), p. 438. Mickey Lotz has written on the functional qualities of Native American bows in “A Simple D Bow, ” Primitive Archer, vol 12, no 5 (2004), available online <>. On the sense of “fitness” and the crafting of a tool or object according to a sense of what is right, see Eugene S. Ferguson, “The Mind’s Eye: Nonverbal Thought in Technology,” Science 197 (4306) (1977):827-835. James Walker’s material is published in his monograph, Sun Dance and Other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of the Teton Dakota , American Museum of Natural History Anthropological Papers, 16, pt. 2 (1917), pp. 50-221 (available in reprint) and in several edited volumes, Lakota Belief and Ritual, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1980, and subsequent printings), Lakota Myth, edited by Elaine A. Jahner (Lincoln and London: University of Nebrask Press, published in conjunction with the Colorado Historical Society, 1983 and subsequent reprintings), and Lakota Society, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie (Lincoln and London: Univertsity of Nebraska Press, 198 and subsequent reprintings). Lakota Society includes Walker’s description of the communal chase of the buffalo, pp. 74-94. A summary of Lakota creation stories can be found in William K. Powers, Oglala Religion (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1979 and subsequent reprintings), pp. 68-89. The book on sign language is W.P. Clark, Indian Sign Language,(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982 [originally published in 1885]).

Some of the discussion that appears here also appears in K.I. Koppedrayer, “Cultural Signatures: Bows from the Lakota Nation,” Journal of Archer Antiquaries, vol 47 (2005).

The author wishes to thank the Buechel Lakota Memorial Museum, Mike Marshall and Codey Peneaux, the Jesuit order at St. Francis and Raymond Bucko for their help. Financial support for this research was received from a grant partly funded by Wilfrid Laurier University Operating funds. Any errors of interpretation that have crept into this discussion are mine.

Kay Koppedrayer
Department of Religion and Culture
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo ON N2L 3C5

519-884-0710 x3329