Through the discovery of artifacts and the preservation of stories passed down from generation to generation, we know that archery can be traced back centuries in North America. Indigenous people have long crafted bows and arrows out of natural materials by using ingenuity, intellect and incredible feats of engineering. The things they were able to create with natural resources provided by the land were beautiful and functional and are still used today.
Brian Jackson, former director with Cherokee Nation, spoke to us about the importance of sharing traditional archery and making sure it’s still practiced today. Nathan Bunch, outreach specialist and archery coordinator with Cherokee Nation, spoke to community elders and shared their insights into the origins of archery.
The Origins of Traditional Bows and Arrows
Traditional bows and arrows can be dated back centuries. “In 1956, a cane arrow shaft found in Tennessee was dated as being over 2,000 years old,” Bunch said. “The Cherokees were using arrows made of cane when the Spanish explorers first encountered them in the 16th century. Archaeologists normally don’t find many bows and arrows because the organic material they are made of decays, leaving only the stone points or arrowheads.”
Bunch noted that Cherokees in the Southeast used many different types of wood, including oak, ash, hickory and black locust. “Black locust was the preferred wood of the Cherokees in our original homeland,” Bunch said. “After the forced removal, the Trail of Tears, Osage orange became the wood of choice. Osage orange is also known as bois d’arc (pronounced bow-darc), hedge apple, horse apple and other names. In the Cherokee language, we call it Galogwekdi Dahlonige which means yellow locust. Cherokee National Treasure Al Herrin says a good Osage orange bow stave is like a good wife; it is hard to find and can be, all at the same time, the most stubborn, frustrating, humbling and satisfying thing a man ever tangled with.”
Jackson said he uses bois d’arc bows and isn’t quite sure why bois d’arc wood was the wood of choice. “I love the idea that they probably experimented with different kinds of wood, and bois d’arc is a wood that is pretty light-colored and as it gets older (it) will get darker and stronger,” Jackson said. “One of the bows I have is about 20 years old and it’s several pounds stronger now than it was then to pull back. I would love to have been able to go back in time and see how they figured that out. They would cut the tree down as straight as they could, … split it into fours, sometimes sixes depending on how big the tree was, then they would let that dry. They wanted to cut the tree down after the sap had dried; you don’t want the sap still in the tree. We were always told that it was after the first freeze.”
“You’re never going to have two bows look the same, even if they’re out of the same tree,” Jackson said. “The growth pattern, the knots; some of them you’ll see are kind of curvy, some of them are straight. But the bois d’arc tree doesn’t grow very straight, so you’re not going to have a lot of straight bows. There’s always going to be some kind of curve or twist or something in that bow.”
Jackson asked an elder one day how the Indigenous Native Americans figured out the wood. The general consensus is that “as long as it’s from the nut family, you can make a bow out of it.” Since nut-producing trees don’t grow everywhere, different regions would have to figure out different types of wood.
The materials used to make arrows and bowstrings were also unique to the land. “For the arrows we use around here in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, we have the Illinois River, which has river cane which is part of the bamboo family,” Jackson said. “It’s stronger and smaller, so we use the river cane for not only arrows but blow guns as well.”
“It’s really impressive to me for them to have figured these things out when they didn’t have anything to figure it out with,” Jackson continued. “Like the strings, the sinew is what a lot of us use, but there’s also a style where they use a red squirrel. After you skin the squirrel, you would clean all the hair off, grain tune it, then you would start in the middle and you would cut like a circle around and around and around, fairly thin. Then, you would stretch those out, tie it to something or put a little bit of weight on the end and you would braid those together and that was how they made their bowstrings.”
Traditional Cherokee bows are self bows, also known as “D bows,” which are made from a single piece of wood. They’re usually 5 to 6 feet long, with limbs of a flat or rectangular cross-section, no handle, and the widest part is in the middle. They usually have a 50- to 80-pound draw weight. The bow bends throughout its entire length, which gives it a letter “D” shape when drawn. Bunch noted something James Adair wrote about the Cherokee in 1775: “They make perhaps the finest bows, and the smoothest barbed arrows of all mankind.”
“The effectiveness of the self bow has been recorded by numerous observers and explorers,” Bunch said and provided an example. “A chronicler for De Soto wrote: ‘The Indians never remain quiet, but are continually running, traversing from place to place, so that neither crossbow or arquebus can be aimed at them. Before a Christian can make a single shot with either, an Indian will discharge three or four arrows; and he seldom misses of his object.’”
While the knowledge and practice of making traditional bows is still very much alive today, Bunch noted that there is a small number of bowyers left among the Cherokee, and their numbers decrease each year. “Most of the bowyers are willing to share and teach so that they may be able to pass on the knowledge to the next generation,” Bunch said.
Jackson recalled going to a camp in Tahlequah and teaching the campers how to make their own bows and arrows out of bois d’arc and river cane. Since one weekend didn’t allow time for the entire bow-making process, Jackson taught them how to make limb bows from some bois d’arc trees that had already been knocked down. Limb bows are tree limbs that are bent as straight as possible to make a temporary bow and have been used by Indigenous people for centuries. The campers loved the experience and were thrilled to show Jackson their work when he returned, proving that the interest is there if people are presented the opportunity.
Jackson enjoys traditional archery and sharing it with the next generation. “I’ll bring a stave out and show them and say ‘What do you guys think of this?” he said. “’It’s an ugly piece of wood, it’s got splinters on it, it’s dirty. A lot of people would say it’s campfire wood. But what you see and what I see are two different things. I see what’s inside this wood and if we allow our parents, our coaches, our teachers, whomever, to help us take all that away, what’s inside is a beautiful piece of wood that can be a beautiful bow. And that’s just like all of us: There’s something inside of us that’s beautiful.”
Jackson is also a motivational speaker, and he shares his traditional culture with children at various schools. When speaking at a grade school, he showed the students how to tie traditional turkey feathers onto a river cane arrow shaft (no arrow point, just the shaft) and they were fascinated by the arrows. They got to paint their own crests and were proud to take those arrows home. He always tries to circle his teachings back to traditional archery.
Along with teaching traditional practices to the next generation, the Cherokee continue to use traditional bows today when they compete in cornstalk archery tournaments.
Cornstalk archery competitions are traditional Native American archery competitions that began centuries ago and are still enjoyed and celebrated annually today during the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah and through other events as a way to keep the traditional bow alive.
Jackson ran the cornstalk competition for years. He and Bunch agree that no one is entirely sure when the cornstalk shoots began, but they do have a general time frame. “Most believe it originated with pre-Columbian Cherokees,” Bunch said. “They say the game of Cherokee marbles to be around 1,200 years old and that cornstalk shooting is older than that. Just like most games Cherokees play, cornstalk shooting is more than a sport. It’s a means to practice and hone their skills to be better prepared.”
For this practice, the archers shoot at racks of cornstalks placed 85 to 120 yards apart and often use a traditional bow and arrows. “We shoot at cornstalks that are cut 3 feet long and they’re put into racks that are 12 inches deep, so we lay the cornstalks down,” Jackson said. The stacks themselves are 3 feet high.
Because the cornstalks are very hard and dry, using a standard field point doesn’t work. “When you hit the cornstalk rack, it penetrates through the cornstalks and you get points for how many cornstalks your arrows go through,” Jackson said. They place a spike on the end of the arrow, instead of a traditional field point, that can be anywhere from 1 inch to 9 inches long, with the average being about 5 inches long. Cornstalk racks are lined up on opposite ends of the playing area. Archers line up next to the racks on one side and aim at the racks on the other side. Each cornstalk equals a point. Play alternates between the cornstalk racks and continues until an archer hits 50 points.
The tournaments in Tahlequah have a kid’s division, a traditional division, and a division where everything is traditional from the bow to the arrows to the bowstrings. Everything has to be handmade. There’s also a recurve and compound division to include archers who want to participate in the traditional tournament but don’t have traditional gear. Jackson said he’s seen archers hold their bows sideways and launch the arrows on an arc in the air. He was fascinated by that strategy and noted they wouldn’t hit the stalks as often, but when they did, they went through a lot of them.
When Jackson visited the Easton Archery Center for his Level 2 USA Archery Instructor Certification, he took his very traditional arrows made of river cane shafts, wild turkey feather fletching and handmade 9-inch spiked arrow tips. They have an archery museum there that showcases bows from all over the world. He asked them if they’d ever seen arrows made for cornstalk shooting, and they asked what that was. He showed them pictures of the cornstalk competition and shared the tradition. They were so fascinated that they immediately put the arrows into their museum. So, the tradition is now on display for archery lovers to experience.
If you’re curious to try this historic and treasured activity, Bunch and Jackson noted that there is a Cherokee Cornstalk Shooters Society known as THACK, named after the sound the arrow makes when it hits the cornstalks. They meet the second Saturday of each month at One Fire Field in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. “They are a group of archers who have kept the bow shooting tradition on a positive path,” Bunch said. “They normally have two shoots with a lunch in between. There’s always a lot of fellowship, shared knowledge and laughter. They welcome everyone to come out and take part because that’s what it takes for the tradition to continue and grow. They would love to see more youth be involved and are hopeful that with the Archery in the Schools program taking off in our area that it may be a way to bridge the gap. Whether it’s a traditional, recurve or compound bow, we just want something to get the youth interested in archery.” You can learn more about the group via its Facebook page. There’s also the Muscogee Creek Nation Festival Youth Cornstalk Shoot and the Shoot of the Nations competition. Cherokee Nation has one public archery range, the Joe Thornton Archery Park. Their goal is to open another range in the northern and southern parts of the reservation to bring archery to more Cherokees. “Archery has been a part of the Cherokee way of life for many generations and we are committed to teaching our youth and others interested in it the safest and best way to carry on this tradition,” Bunch said.
“It’s such an old tradition that, for me, I don’t know how not to do it and how not to promote it and to be proud that this is who we were and this is how we did it,” Jackson said. When he travels to Guinness World Record exhibitions, he brings homemade gifts like leather pouches to give out as a thank-you. He wanted to extend his culture’s tradition of saying thank you for inviting him by sharing something traditional and handmade. He was invited to participate in a traditional archery competition next year in Mongolia, wearing traditional clothing and using only handmade traditional equipment. He plans to attend and hopes these traditional practices will reach a very wide audience.
Archery’s roots in Native American society are strong and go back centuries. We can learn a lot about their history and draw inspiration from learning about traditional archery. Thankfully, it is still enjoyed and celebrated today. The cornstalk competitions are not only great displays of traditional archery; they’re a chance to learn about history and share a cultural experience.