Cherokee bowmaker passes on traditional skills 6-3-07

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) - When Al Herrin was growing up in the Eldon and Welling areas, he watched some of his neighbors, traditional Cherokee bowmakers, practice their skill.

Using the bows they had crafted, they brought home many a deer or squirrel or other game to the family table.

But these men aged, and Herrin and many others were afraid the skills they had honed so expertly would become only a part of history.

Today, Herrin not only has logged many seasons hunting with traditional Cherokee bows, but passes the techniques on to others.

Herrin, author of “Cherokee Bows and Arrows” and several other works, was honored as a Living Treasurer and Cherokee Master Craftsman by former Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller and the Cherokee Tribal Council.

“I learned to make bows and arrows from the old Cherokees, some of whom were my relatives, some people living in the community,” he said.

During the 1980s, Col. Martin Hagerstrand of the Cherokee Heritage Center established the lost arts project to prevent some of these traditions from dying out. In addition to bow and arrow making, Hagerstrand recruited Cherokees skilled in making blowguns, gigs, and marbles.

Herrin said when he wrote his book on traditional bow making, some people made fun of him, because compound bows had become predominant in the sport of archery.

“Why would anyone want to make and shoot primitive bows?” he asked. “I was concerned about preserving the knowledge, as best I could.”

Herrin once wrote an article ranking 20 types of wood for bow-making, from the best to the worst. Although several types of wood can be used to make a good bow, there's no doubt in his mind which is best - bois d'arc, French for “the wood of bows.”

The bois d'arc tree, also known as the Osage orange, hedge tree, and horse apple, once had a range limited to Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, part of Kansas and the surrounding area.

Herrin has several bows made of bois d'arc, the simplest being flat bows without handles.

“When I was a boy, I saw Cherokees using bows just like this,” he said. “You can't leave a bow like this strung up all the time. It'll ruin it.”

He is especially proud of a century-old flat bow strung with groundhog hide. Groundhog hide and squirrel hide were favored by Cherokees for bowstrings.

“Bois d'arc darkens naturally with age, so the older the bow gets, the darker it will become,” he said.

He doesn't recommend making bows out of persimmon wood, which won't split like other trees.

Herrin said bows with handles are easier to use and cause less “hand shock,” he said.

He then picked up a bow he made in 1985. He made two bows from the same tree that year. One pulled at about 45 pounds and he has used it for squirrels. The second had a greater pull strength, of 55 pounds, and has brought down a number of deer.

“This bow will do anything that a compound bow will do in hunting,” he said. “You just have to be closer. You have to be a better hunter.”

He can bring down a deer from 20 to 25 yards, while compound bows can shoot one from a greater distance. It takes more skill to get closer to the deer successfully.

In the old days, Cherokees defended their walled towns with long bows that could hit the enemy from 100 yards or more, similar to the skill of the celebrated English longbows of medieval times.

Herrin has participated in cornstalk shoots, a monthly event at the Cherokee Heritage Center. Archers aim at bundles of cornstalks from a distance of 80 to 100 yards. Since points are counted by the number of stalks the arrow has penetrated, archers developed long points that would go through as many stalks as possible.

Herrin referred often to Richard McLemore, who preferred making those points from a spring taken from a Model T Ford.

Shorter bows were used for hunting in brushy areas, while Plains Indians used even shorter bows to hunt from horseback.

Bow hunting strengthened the archer's arms and hands.

“They developed a very strong pinch. Some of this was used on children very effectively,” Herrin said, laughing, as he recalled his father pinching him if he was being disruptive or restless in church.