Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Arrows, Bows and Quivers


[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, generally well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The bow and arrow was the most useful and universal weapon and implement of the chase possessed by the Indians N. of Mexico for striking or piercing distant objects.


Arrows - A complete Indian arrow is made up of six parts: Head, shaft, foreshaft, shaftment, feathering, and nock. These differ in material, form, measurement, decoration, and assemblage, according to individuals, locality, and tribe. Arrowheads have three parts: Body, tang, and barbs. There are two kinds of arrowheads, the blunt and the sharp. Blunt heads are for stunning, being top-shaped. The Ute, Paiute, and others tied short sticks crosswise on the end of the shafts of boys' arrows for killing birds. Sharp arrowheads are of two classes, the lanceolate, which can be withdrawn, and the sagittate, intended for holding game or for rankling in the wound. The former are used on hunting, the latter on war or retrieving arrows. In the S. W. a sharpened foreshaft of bard wood serves for the head. Arctic and N. W, coast arrows have heads of ivory, bone, wood, or copper, as well as of stone; elsewhere they are more generally of stone, chipped or polished, Many of the arrowheads from those two areas are either two-pronged, three-pronged, or harpoon-shaped. The head is attached to the shaft or foreshaft by lashing with sinew, by riveting, or with gum. Among the [Inuit] the barbed head of bone is stuck loosely into a socket on the shaft, so that this will come out and the head rankle in the wound. The barbs of the ordinary chipped head are usually alike on both sides, but in the long examples from ivory, bone, or wood the barbing is either bilateral or unilateral, one-barbed or many-barbed, alike on the two sides or different. In addition to their use in hunting and in war, arrows are commonly used in games and ceremonies. Among certain Hopi priesthoods arrowheads are tied to bandoliers as ornaments, and among the Zuni they are frequently attached to fetishes.


Arrowshafts of the simplest kind are reeds, canes, or stems of wood. In the Arctic region they are made of driftwood or are bits of bone lashed together, and are rather short, owing to the scarcity of material. The foreshaft is a piece of ivory, bone, or heavy wood. Among the [Inuit], foreshafts are of bone or ivory on wooden shafts; in California , of hard wood or shafts of pithy or other light wood; from California across the continent to Florida , of hard wood on cane shafts. The shaftments in most arrows are plain; but on the W. coast they are painted with stripes for identification. The Plains Indians and the Acarillas cut shallow grooves lengthwise down their arrowshafts, called "lightning marks," or "blood grooves;" and also are said by Indians to keep the shaft from warping (Fletcher) or to direct the flight. The feathering is an important feature in the Indian arrow, differing in the species of birds, the kind and number of feathers and in their form, length, and manner of setting. As to the number of feathers, arrows are either without feathering, two-feathered, or three-feathered. As to form, feathers are whole, as among most of the [Inuit] and some S. W. tribes, or halved or notched on the edges. In length they vary from the very short feathering on S. W. arrows, with long reed shafts and heavy fore-shafts, to the long feathering on Plains arrows, with their short shafts of hard wood. The feathers are set on the shaftment either flat or radiating; the ends are lashed with sinew, straight or doubled under, and the middles are either free or glued down. In some arrows there is a slight rifling, due perhaps to the twist needed to make a tight fit, though it is not said that this feature is intentional. The nooks of arrows, the part containing the notch for the string, are, in the Arctic , flat; in the S., where reed shafts were employed, cylindrical; and in localities where the shafts were cut, bulbous. Besides its use as a piercing or striking projectile, special forms of the arrow were employed as a toy, in gaming, in divining, in rain-making, in ceremony, in symbolism, and in miniature forms with prayer-sticks. The modulus in arrow-making was each man's arm. The manufacture of arrows was usually attended with much ceremony.


The utmost flight, the certainty of aim, and the piercing power of Indian arrows are not known, and stories about them are greatly exaggerated. The hunter or warrior got as near to his victim as possible. In shooting he drew his right hand to his ear. His bow register scarcely exceeded 60 pounds, yet arrows are said to have gone quite through the body of a buffalo (Wilson in Rep. Nat. Mus . for 1897, 811-988.)


Bows - The bows of the North Americans are quite as interesting as their arrows. The varied environments quickened the inventive faculty and produced several varieties. They are distinguished by the materials and the parts, which are known as back, belly, wings, grip, nooks, and strings. The varieties are as follows: (1) Self bow, made of one piece; (2) compound bow, of several pieces of wood, bone, or horn lashed together; (3) sinew-backed bow, a bow of driftwood or other brittle wood, reinforced with cord of sinew wrapped many times about it lengthwise, from wing to wing; (4) sinew-lined bow, a self-bow, the back of which is further strengthened with sinew glued on. In some cases bows were decorated in colours.


The varieties characterizing the culture areas are distinguished as follows:


1. Arctic - Compound bows in the E., very clumsy, owing to scarcity of material; the grip may be of wood, the wings of whale's ribs or bits of wood from whalers. In the W. excellent sinew-backed bows were made on bodies of driftwood. Asiatic influence is apparent in them. (See Boas in 6th Rep. B. A. E ., 399-669, 1884; Murdoch in 9th Rep. B. A. E ., 133-617, 1887, and Rep. Nat. Mus . for 1884, 307-316.)


2. Northern Athapascan - Long, straight bows of willow or birch, with wooden wristguards projecting from the belly.


3. St. Lawrence and Eastern United States - Self-bows of ash, second-growth hickory, osage orange (bois d'arc), oak, or other hard wood.


4. Gulf states - Long bows, rectangular in section, of walnut or other hard wood.


5. Rocky mountains - (1) Self-bow of osage orange or other hard wood; (2) a compound bow of several strips of buffalo horn lashed together and strengthened.


6. North Pacific coast - Bows with rounded grip and flat wings, usually made of yew or cedar.


7. Fraser-Columbia region - Similar to No. 6, but with wings much shorter and the nooks curved sharply outward.


8. Interior basin -   A long slender stick of rude form; many are strengthened by means of a sinew lining on the back and cross wrappings.


The bows N. of the Rockies have little distinction of parts, but the w. [Inuit] and Pacific slope varieties have flat wings, and the former shows connection with Asia . The nooks are in some tribes alike, but among the Plains Indians the lower nock is cut in at one side only. Bow-strings are of sinew cord tied at one end and looped at the other.


Wrist-Guard - When the bowman's left arm was exposed he wore a wrist-guard of hide or other suitable material to break the blow of the released string. Wrist-guards were also decorated for ceremonial purposes.


ARROW RELEASE - Arrow release is the way of holding the nock and letting loose the arrow in shooting. Morse describes four methods among the tribes N. of Mexico, the first three being Indian: (1) Primary release, in which the nock is held between the thumb and the first joint of the forefinger; (2) secondary release, in which the middle and the ring fingers are laid inside of the string; (3) tertiary release, in which the nock is held between the ends of the forefinger and the middle finger, while the first three fingers are hooked on the string; (4) the Mediterranean method, confined to the [Inuit], whose arrows have a flat nock, in which the string is drawn with the tips of the first, second, and third fingers, the nock being lightly held between the first and the second fingers. Morse finds that among the North American tribes, the Navaho, Chippewa, Micmac, and Penobscot used the primary release; the Ottawa , Chippewa, and Zuni the secondary; the Omaha , Arapaho, Cheyenne , Assiniboin, Comanche, Crows, Siksika, and some Navaho, the tertiary.


QUIVERS - The form of the quiver depended on the size of the bow and arrows; the materials, determined by the region, are skin or wood. Sealskin quivers are used in the Arctic region; beautifully decorated examples of deerskin are common in Canada , also E. of the Rockies and in the Interior basin. On the Pacific coast cedar quivers are employed by the canoe-using tribes, and others make them of skins of the otter, mountain lion, or coyote.

Return to the Index page of Indians of Canada and Quebec


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 39-41. See the entry under arrowheads at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College