Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/September 1897/Eskimo Bows and Arrows
|ESKIMO BOWS AND ARROWS.|
WHEN we landed at Point Barrow, in 1881, it seemed as if every Eskimo hunter had a pretty good rifle. There is a law against selling breech-loading arms and ammunition to "Indians," but it was no better enforced in Alaska than it was in old times on the plains, when the Sioux used to butcher our soldiers with rifles and cartridges made in the Eastern States.
When we grew better acquainted with the natives, however, we found that some of the poorer men were still obliged to depend on the weapon of their forefathers, the bow and arrows. Besides, every boy in the village had his little bow, which he used for shooting birds and small animals. Now, these bows were perhaps the most ingenious piece of bow-making in the world.
As every one knows, the Eskimos, with very few exceptions, inhabit a region which is perfectly treeless, or at any rate where nothing grows but pines and spruces, whose soft, inelastic wood is entirely useless for making bows. They have overcome this difficulty very effectively by fastening along the back of the bow twisted cords of reindeer sinew in such a way that each cord is stretched when the bow is bent and flies back when the bowstring is released. As far as we know, no other race of savages make use of this ingenious contrivance. Some tribes of Indians are in the habit of stiffening their bows by "backing" them with strips of sinew, glued on, but the Eskimo backing is made of cords and tied on. As old Martin Frobisher, the first Englishman who ever saw the Eskimos (in 1577), tells us, "Their bowes are of wood of a yard long, sinewed on the back with strong sinewes, not glued too, but fast girded and tyed on."
In some regions the Eskimos when first visited by white men were still using bows with a very simple backing, merely twenty or thirty strands of twine running from one end of the bow to the other, twisted together tightly from the middle, and tied down to the bow in two or three places. My friends at Point Barrow and along the adjacent coast, however, had gone on improving the bow until it was the best made by Eskimos anywhere.
The body of the bow was made of a piece of good sound spruce driftwood, from forty to fifty inches long, an inch and a quarter wide, and three fourths of an inch thick in the middle. It was very carefully and neatly made, trimmed down beautifully smooth with the crooked knife, the Eskimo's universal tool, with which he does such very clever whittling. Like all bows, they were flattened on the "back" and rounded on the "belly" and tapered off toward the ends, where they were worked into neat "nocks" for the bowstring. Some bows were straight, and some turned up at the ends like a Tartar bow.
Now, to "back" such a bow as this they would take one piece of twine, forty or fifty yards long. This twine is made of a three-ply braid of reindeer sinew, about the size of common twine such as we use for tying parcels, and serves the Eskimos for a great variety of purposes. One end is looped round one nock of the bow, and about twenty strands are strung up and down the back of the bow, from one end to the other. Then they began to lay on strands that ran only between the weakest parts of the bow—that is, the points about half a foot from each end. Here these strands were fastened with very complicated hitches, making a sort of "whipping" round the bow. When there were enough strands put on to make a couple of cords about as big as a lead pencil, an ingenious tool was used to twist each up tight from the middle, and the whole was whipped down securely with the end of the cord. It is easy to see how drawing the bow would stretch these twisted cords and make them fly back with great force when the string was released, while all these lashings and whippings not only hold the cords tight to the bow, but also compress the fibers of the wood like the whippings on a fishing rod, and prevent cracking. The hitches and knots, besides, are put on in such a way that straining the backing draws every lashing tighter. The bowstring was also of the same plaited sinew.
The arrows were very neatly made of some light wood, and feathered with two or rarely three narrow feathers, generally made from the quill of some bird of prey, and neatly lashed on. They had four kinds of arrows. The bear arrow in old times always had a regular flint arrowhead, made by flaking, such as so many savages used, and which are found in such quantities all over the country wherever the Indians used to live. They still preserve the art of making these at Point Barrow, and made a number of beautiful arrow points for sale to us. But they never learned how to make a flint arrowhead with barbs, and so they sometimes made their bear arrows with a barbed head of bone tipped with flint. Driven by such a strong bow these arrows were very effective, and, if no bone was in the way, were sometimes driven clean through the body of a polar bear. As they came more in contact with white men, they took to tipping both kinds of bear arrows with bits of metal, brass, iron, or steel when they could get them. I brought home a couple of arrows tipped each with one blade of a pair of scissors, filed into an arrowhead.
For hunting the reindeer the arrow had a long, sharp, bayonet-shaped head made of antler, barbed on one edge and fitted loosely into the shaft. As the Eskimos told us, when they hit a deer with one of these arrows the shaft could drop out, leaving the barbed head in the wound, and the deer would go off, "sleep one night, and then die."
Geese, gulls, and other large fowls were shot with arrows that had long, five-sided heads of walrus ivory, not very sharp and barbed on one edge, while for hunting small birds they used an arrow with a blunt, club-shaped head made of reindeer antler. Such an arrow kills a small bird or little animal like a lemming or ground squirrel by stunning it, and does not tear a great hole in it. The boys' arrows nowadays are often headed with empty copper cartridge cases, and I have seen one of these shot clean through the body of a small bird.
The bow was carried, strung ready for use, in a sheath of tanned sealskin slung across the shoulders in such a way that it could easily be drawn out under the right arm. Nowadays they carry their rifles in similar sheaths.
Attached to the sheath was a quiver, also of sealskin, in which they used to keep an assortment of arrows, some of each kind, according to the hunter's needs.
All the Eskimos draw the bow like European archers that is, by hooking the fore and middle fingers round the bowstring, with the arrow clasped between the fingers, instead of pinching the butt of the arrow between the finger and thumb, like most Indians.
As the bow is now practically nothing but a plaything among the Eskimos of the Northwest, it will probably not be many years before it entirely disappears, as it has in Greenland.