This week we are going to explore the weapons and games used by the Cherokee in the 16th century based on the guide and demonstrators of Diligwa Village at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
THE BLOWGUN (Danny) [watch video] The Cherokee child’s first hunting tool before the bow and arrow was the blowgun. Blowguns were made from river cane. They would gather the cane, lay it out to let it dry, pick the straightest one and cut it off to the length they wanted. Next they would have to burn out the notches. The canes were hollow between the notches, but they would have to take hot coals, poke them into the cane with a smaller cane and burn out the notches. Then, in order to straighten them, they would spin the crooked section over the fire until it sweated to make it pliable, then it could be straightened by pushing against the knee. To make the darts for it, they would take any kind of hard wood and cut it, split it, and section it to make a needle-like point. Then they would use the purple pods from a Canadian Thistle to make the fluffy, white plume for the blunt end. They never poisoned the darts since they were for the children, but it was unnecessary for killing small game. A longer gun is not more accurate than a shorter one, but it is more powerful and capable of bringing down larger game.
FLINT NAPPING (Feather) [watch video] Flint napping was a method for making tools like arrow heads, knives, scrapping tools, etc. It was a skill that everyone in the village would have had. The men needed tools for hunting and war, whereas women needed scrappers for hides and gardening tools. To make the tools, they would need any rock that flakes, like flint. They would take the large stones and, using a rounded hammer stone, knock off flakes. Once the rock was thinned down, they would use a deer bone to form it (pressure flaking) into the particular size and shape needed. A skilled flint napper can create an arrowhead in about ten minutes.
BOWS AND ARROWS (Feather, Tim) [watch video] To make an arrow, they would have taken river cane, straightened it, and then applied pine pitch to the tip to glue the arrow head on. The hunting tips, which have a notched base, would also have been tied to the cane so that they would not come off when pulled out. But, the war tip did not have the notched base, just a flared bottom and would have only been glued on. The tip was intended to not come out when the arrow shaft was removed so that the only way to remove the arrow head was by pushing the arrow on through or surgically removing it. The Cherokee arrow has two feathers which is unique to the Southeastern Woodland Indians. Most arrows had three feathers. In the 16th century, Cherokees were trading with colonists for metal pots. When the pots wore out, they would break off pieces to make metal arrowheads.
The bows were made from a hard wood like Bois d’arc or Black Locust. On the outside of the bow, they would cut along the grain because to cut across the grain made the bow weak and it would break under strain. On the inside, however, it could be shaped. Today, most archers use 40-70 pounds, but in the 16th century, hunters and warriors used in excess of 100 pounds. The traditional bow string was made from bear intestine.
THE BALL PLAY AND STICK BALL (Feather) [watch video] In ancient times, the ball play was played on a large field, roughly as large as a football field or larger. The players used netted sticks to handle the ball and a score was made by carrying the ball through two trees or poles it the end of the field. There were few rules other than it was not permitted to touch the ball with hands or feet. So, it was a rough sport played only by men that often resulted in injury or even death from being hit by a stick or rough-housing. Known as “The Little Brother of War”, the ball play was often used in place of war to settle disputes between tribes.
Today the game has been greatly modified to be a fun social event. A tall post in the center of the field with a wooden fish on a swivel at the top is now the object for scoring. Hit the fish to receive three points, hit the post just below the fish for one point. Men usually play against men and women against women in tournaments, but for fun, men often play against women with modified rules. Women, the weaker sex, have no rules but are not allowed to have sticks. Men must not hit the women with their sticks. The women may knock the men down, sit on them, throw their sticks in the woods, whatever they want!
Many thanks to Feather Smith, Tim, Danny, and principal chief, Hutke Fields for their contributions to this article.