I will tell you a story of the first documented indigenous man murdered by a european. Our native friend was five foot four inches tall (quite old for his time), had brown eyes, and was lactose intolerant- like many of us Aboriginal North Americans. He bore on his back a cape of woven grasses. Around his waist a loincloth of buckskin, and leather leggings to accompany them. On his torso- a striped vest of stitched skins, and upon his crown a cap of bear fur sewn from strips. He was carrying with him the most important possessions a man would own; a flint dagger on an ash handle bound with sinews, a fire-making kit with iron pyrite as a striker for another chunk of flint, tinder fungus to create a coal, a copper headed axe, (a symbol of his status and trade as a copper-smith, a highly specialized skill at his time,) a flint-knapping kit, a quiver full of unfinished arrows, and a bow made of yew wood that he was trying to complete. This wasnt all he had with him, but these were the essentials for independent survival. He had brought along scant food, considering he had just eaten a nice meal of meat and breads before the outing. Possibly his companions on the raid carried the other supplies.
Yes, there was a raid, and it ended terribly. This warrior found himself killing and wounding at least 4 enemies, but he had been routed. Whether or not he fled from the fight because of being out matched and out numbered, or because it was tactically advantageous to run, we do know he was pursued and found himself the recipient of a stone tipped arrow in the back. This wound was quite grievous, and in his escape thinking he had gotten well away from pursuit, propped his bow against a rock, his axe against a tree, and sat down. When his enemies found him, he could not summon the strength to fight back. The subclavian artery in his shoulder had been severed and he was bleeding out. A quick smack to the head with a war club, a shove onto his belly to retrieve the precious arrow, and our friend the Ice Man was dead.
The famous Ice Man of the Ötzal Alps mountains in Italy is our indigenous protagonist. What?, you say? You had me thinking he was an American Indian! Well, this event occurred around five thousand and three hundred years ago, before (as far as western history knows) empires began to rise and fall and the indigenous man all around was on the road to decimation by ravenous beast-nations. Yet Ötzi was truly indigenous. He had the means to survive in the land he lived in with nothing but some self-made tools and his wits. I imagine that had he completed his bow, he would have survived, or taken more enemies with him. He was literally found laying on his stomach in the glacial ice twenty years ago by some hikers who thought he was a recent hiking accident. His bow and axe were right where he left them so many millennia prior. The archaelogical community has been driven wild by him. Dates had to be pushed back to explain the things he carried, and more mysteries opened up before them.
It would appear that most western individuals want to forcibly forget, or because of Ignorance, disregard the fact that as human beings we have a common history of being savages. Living in huts and halls made from hand gathered materials, living off the land with what they can plant and kill themselves. What many European cultures have in common with us Aboriginal Turtle Islanders is that they were once free independent societies, armed with bows, arrows, and axes, until the war drums of empires sounded in their valleys and forests. My favorite examples are those of the Germanic and Celtic tribes. They are (unfortunately for them) well recorded by the Roman legions who did the exact same thing to them that the United States military and government did to us Pre-Columbians. First it was bloodshed, then disorientation because of tribal organization in warfare where the many tribes of the nation wouldn’t work together because of political idealogies, and then economic exploitation. It has been a rinse and repeat process since then.
When the Romans finally encountered the Welsh on their journey to conquer as much as possible for glory, their writers recorded the devastating effect of the arrows rained upon them by the indigenous insurgents. The men were painted blue from head to toe, a visage that could be mistaken for one of our 500 nations, and their arrows were made of reed, a hollow stemmed grass species much like bamboo, with sharp bone and stone points reminiscent of eastern woodland arrows of Turtle Island. From then on the Welsh were legendary for their archery, and their bows made of Elm were much to be feared. Eventually after the conquest by the Anglo Saxons, their people were a large part of the military successes of England, due to their skills with the bow.
There is a Welsh adage that I go by nid hyder ond bwa, which translates to no dependence but the bow. The Welsh, Scottish, and Irish have long fought against the dominion of the English, and have sought their independence for hundreds of years, almost a millennia entirely. They remember what the bow gave them: their true freedom to receive materials from the earth, live by their own means, and protect themselves with devastating effect.
If you look at historical and archaeological examples of bows, you will find a common design in ancient Europe that mirrors the technology of our Turtle Island forebears- a wide flat bow with a narrow handle, with length as the trees and purpose dictate. This technology is old in years innumerable. Scientists still speculate and find themselves confounded on when and where the bow arrived, and how long its been in one place or another. Ötzis bow was almost the exact design that England used in their pre-firearm conquest. King Henry the Eighth had a ship called the Mary Rose that sank. On it were 91 guns and cannons, and 3500 arrows and 137 longbows! There were nearly replicas of the design 4800 years prior, and of the same material. There were probably some Welsh archers to man them too.
It is obvious what relevance the bow has to us as indigenous people, especially here on Turtle Island where it is a recent clash, and the use of the bow and its rapid fire capabilities won a fight on many occasions against slow loading firearms. It is a truly self sufficient technology, much more sustainable than firearms. I can make a bow in almost every environment I find myself in. There are designs suited for use in the harshest places, even using animal bones, horn, and antler as the main portion of mass on them. The bow and arrow continues to mystify us and our young people. It is iconic of our place on the earth, and is the firmament on which our people have lived and survived.
My personal survival depends on the bow. While I have not been forced to eke out an existence with my wits and tools in the wilderness, I have had to survive psychologically in a harsh urban-american environment that disagrees with my beliefs and desires. These pieces of wood and trees have been all that has kept me alive during my worst times. It gives me purpose, and something to occupy myself with. It is my anti-drug. Bow making has been therapeutic for me. By learning it, and now teaching others, I find myself rejuvenated and invigorated with the will to live. It is my hope to give this skill to as many people, both young and old, as possible. I feel it is just as important to our cultural survival as it is to our physical survival in times of trouble. It is a technology that is thousands of years old. We can rely on it for its time tested reputation if we find ourselves without the power grid. Even the poorest of folk can afford to make a weapon with which to defend themselves and provide food. Whether its frogs, squirrels, prairie dogs, or majestic buffalo and deer, we will have the means to live.
I have searched long and hard for examples of the missing Dakota/Isanathi longbow, that was said to have existed by oral tradition. You can find it described generically by Amos Oneroad, in his book Being Dakota. I have a deep burning desire to hold in my hands the shape and style of bow that my ancestors held. It would put me in their footsteps. We already know the style of a bow can last thousands of years, and that its spirit is strong. As a part of the Oceti Sakowin, we did share much with our western relatives, including the bow designed for use on horseback that is so famously known. Still, our cousins to the east, the Anishnaabe, shared much with us also, and their bows in general were as tall as up to their shoulders. Dakota warriors went to war on foot in the forest, and for that we were allowed the extra length that was cumbersome while mounted. This extra length gave us more energy in our shots, and more durability from the stresses of the wood. This has become something obscured by the past for when our war broke out in 1862 and we were hit hard, they took everything from us and shipped us away. The bow was frowned upon by missionaries and Indian Agents alike, so it was shoved into the recesses of our minds until they slipped up and assumed that we were too far gone to spring back like we are now- in this cultural renaissance. It will serve as a symbolic catalyst to go hand in hand with our language renewal efforts.
From my experience, kids, and quite a few grown Native and non-Native men, think that bows are absolutely magical- myself included. It is truly an artifact given to us by the spirits that has allowed all of mankind to endure this world. For that, it deserves all indigenous peoples reverence from now well into the future, as it will sustain us and ensure independence for untold generations to come.