Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Bows and Arrows -- Part Two: Arrows and Archers
Nature Bulletin No. 593   February 27, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
Richard Becker, Naturalist

Archery, and hunting with a bow, are sports increasingly popular in this country. Bows and arrows are still used by primitive tribes, such as the pigmies in Africa and the aborigines in South American jungles, who frequently tip their arrows with deadly poisons. The warlike Indians of the Great Plains used bows and arrows long after the introduction of firearms. Loading an old-fashioned musket took too much time and was difficult for a brave on a running horse. After repeating rifles appeared, they and cartridges for them were greatly prized but hard to get.

Like most Indians, the plains tribes made one-piece arrows from straight shoots of young trees or shrubs. Species such as green ash, black cherry, choke cherry, gray dogwood, bearberry, and willow grew in river bottoms, on the prairies, and in the foothills. The eastern woodland Indians could select from a greater variety including hickory, maple, ash, the cherries, the dogwoods, alder, and arrowwood vibernum. Birch arrows tend to warp and become inaccurate.

In general, the length of an arrow was governed by its purpose and the length of the bow. Those used by the Blackfoot, Sarsi, Dakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne averaged about 25 inches, although Sioux arrows for killing buffalo were shorter. Those made by the woodland Indians were longer because they hunted on foot and used longer bows.

A good arrow had a standard value similar to that of a dressed buffalo hide, a beaver pelt, or our dollar. Among the Crow Indians, for example, an average horse was worth 10 good arrows and the purchase price for a wife was about 10 horses. To make an arrow required a day's work and ordinarily each brave made his own, especially his hunting arrows which were retrieved from dead game and used repeatedly. Some individuals were exceptionally skillful and for a price, perhaps a feast, could be hired to make a bundle of war arrows -- each decorated and bearing the owner's brand.

Woodland Indians commonly bound a bundle of shoots with thongs and hung them over the lodge fire for several weeks to season them. After being sanded they were straightened: usually by greasing and heating the crooked places and then holding each shoot in a straight line until it cooled. The plains Indians straightened and rounded a shoot by drawing it through a hole drilled in an antler or horn, and by rubbing it between two grooved stones.

To control its flight and accuracy, an arrow was fletched with stiff tail feathers from eagles, hawks, owls or turkeys. Many tribes attached three feathers; others used only two, or even one. Sometimes, to give a spiraling flight to an arrow, the feathers were twisted a half turn around the butt of the shaft. Arrows used for shooting birds, small game, and fish had small "bird points" or none at all. Those for warfare and hunting big game had large sharp arrowheads -- fashioned from flint, obsidian, horn, antler, or even bone -- attached to the tip with sinews. After the white men came, iron was commonly used.

Modern bows and arrows are far superior to any used by the Indians or by Robin Hood and his merry men. Many parks have archery ranges (some indoor) and teachers, sponsor archery clubs, and conduct tournaments for boys and girls, young men and women, and old folks. Boy Scouts are being taught to make their own bows and arrows, and how to use them. Most states, including Illinois, now have special seasons for hunting deer and other game with bows and special arrows.

Archery has become an exciting pastime for young and old.

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