The Living Arrow

By | July 11, 2012

In Western cultures, there is a bow-making profession, with practitioners in English-speaking countries being called bowyers.  People who hunt with bow and arrow are called bow hunters. There are books and magazines titled The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible and Bowhunting Magazine. All of this indicates that more emphasis is placed on the design, construction, and use of the bow than the arrow.

For many Native people, such as the San of the African Kalahari, the focus is reversed—they have arrow makers and arrow holders.  Hunters will be given arrows by various people with the request to hunt for them.  The animal killed with the arrow then belongs to the arrow gifter rather than the hunter.  This tradition begs the question:  Why is there such a stark difference between the arrow-focused hunting tradition of Natives such as the San and the bow-centered tradition of cultures such as ours?

A look at the evolution of the bow and the arrow might give clues to our answer.  The first hunting implements beyond bare hand and foot were probably the stone and the stick.  As the hunting skill and intellectual capacity of our early ancestors grew, they likely invented the club by attaching stone to stick, which increased leverage and blow force. The next advancements could have been sharpening the stone for more effective penetration, and then increasing range by attaching a small, pointed stone to the tip of a longer stick to create a spear for thrusting. As their coordination improved, they must have discovered that throwing the spear gave them even more reach and thrusting power.  With lighter shafts and sharper stones, they gained even more range and killing power.

The next step in increasing speed and range was to throw the spear with the aid of a forearm-length stick, which effectively lengthened the arm. The stick, one end of which cradled the butt end of the spear, was held by the other end and whipped forward overhand to launch the spear.

For the final step, a piece of cordage was tied to the ends of a long, flexible stick to keep it bent, creating a bow. A small spear was held to the string as it was pulled back. The string was released and the bow snapped back, flinging the arrow at an even greater velocity than the spear thrower.

The common denominator in all of these evolutionary steps is the arrow, which you can see is no more than an evolved form of the sticks our far-distant ancestors first picked up to extend their reach. Native cultures have maintained the continuum of relationship with the arrow, while we broke the continuum by giving up hunting for gardening and herding.  We became movers and shakers—bow-like people—and forgot that we used to stealthily stalk and quickly strike like an arrow. Add to that our industrial-age obsession for technology and it’s easy to see why we would put our primary focus on the bow.

My son Rab once had a 32 pound wood laminate bow that he was using for target practice.  He complained that it was slow and inaccurate, and he wanted a more powerful one. I suggested that the problem might not be the bow, as the local Ojibwe typically hunted deer and bear with 30 pound bows and found them quite satisfactory.  I didn’t say anything more, hoping experience would be the teacher.

We planned a trip to a large archery shop that had a good selection of used traditional bows. “Have your son bring his arrows,” said the shopkeeper over the phone.  I knew this was the place to go.

After looking at Rab’s bow and drawing it, the shopkeeper turned to the wall of arrows behind him, selected one, and asked Rab to shoot it after one of his own at a target in the adjoining range.

He shrugged his shoulders and shot his arrow, then looked back at us with a “See, I told you so” look.

With the same enthusiasm, he shot the new arrow. And stood there speechless.

He asked for another arrow and shot it, this time smiling and exclaiming, “This is excellent!” He said that the arrows seemed to hit the target as soon as he released them.  And the accuracy—both of them were within an inch or two of the bull’s eye.  He left with three new arrows and a big step closer to being a Native hunter.

We Westerners are deterministic—we like to get things done through planning and force.  Watching us, you’d think there was no other way. Yet our ancestors somehow made it through millions of years trusting that the plan was already laid and the force was already in motion.  Indigenous people the world over see themselves merely as organs within the great functioning organism that many of them call the Hoop of Life. “Our whole way of looking at life is wrong,” said Robert Wolff (author of Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing) to me in a recent conversation. “We are not special, we’re not superior. We’re not better than any other animal or any other life form. We’re just the same—we’re part of life.”

Occasionally a hunter will embark without a bow.  He’ll fashion a quickie bow on the spot when one is needed, and then he’ll leave it lay.  But the arrow is sacred—it’s a petition from his people, which he carries for them to deliver to the one he hunts. The arrow is the hand of the clan reaching out to help close the hoop of hunter and hunted.  The arrow serves both, speaking the desires of the humans for food and the four-leggeds to stay sharp and keep from overpopulating. When the hunter returns from the hunt, the kill and the arrow are immediately turned over to the clan—the organism that keeps him nourished.

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