Monday, 17 December 2007

Know Your Indians - Weapons, Moccasins, Headresses


True Fact Feature By A. Hyatt Verriil


From Double Action Western magazine, November 1953, digital capture by Doug Frizzle 2007

BEFORE the coming of the white men and the introduction of firearms, the most important and universal weapon of the North American tribes was the bow and arrow. These varied greatly according to the tribe. Among most of the eastern and Middle West Indians the favorite bow was of hickory, osage orange or ash, flat on both sides, fairly wide, and about four feet in length; the ax-act shape varied greatly. The Iroquois used bows with the hand-hold narrower than above and below, and usually with the ends somewhat recurved. For use in warfare the Wabenaki Indians of Maine used a unique double bow in which the supplementary bow doubled the power of the regular bow; some of the more southerly tribes, such as the Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws. etc., used long slender bows, flat on one side and rounded on the other.

The tribes of the far western plains used bows of a very different type. Wood suitable for bows was scarce until the white men left hickory wagon-bows, ox yokes, and other equipment which supplied the Indians with seasoned hickory and ash. In order to add power to their bows, the buffalo-hunting Indians bound sinews or strips of horn to their wooden bows and wrapped them with rawhide. They also made bows of horn, carefully fitted together and wrapped with rawhide, for to these tribes the power of the bow— rather than its accuracy—counted the most; and many of their bows would drive an arrow completely through a buffalo. Beyond the plains, in the Sierras and on the Pacific coast, the Indians, as a rule, used very broad, flat bows with a narrow rounded grip, and often with strongly recurved ends.

Although the arrows varied somewhat among the many tribes, the differences were mainly in the method of feathering, the form of the finger-grip, and the method of attaching the head. Some tribes used two, sometimes three feathers. Some fastened the feathers to the shaft for their full length while others attached them only at the ends. Some placed the feathers straight and parallel with the shaft, while others attached them at an angle or at a curve. Some tribes preferred a flattened finger-grip above the notch; others used arrows with the notch end slightly larger than the shaft. In order to allow the blood of a wounded creature, or a man, to flow freely the arrows were often made with grooves or shallow gutters—sometimes straight and sometimes wavy or spiral—extending the length of the shafts. This was an almost universal custom among the plains tribes.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Indians used stone, horn, bone, tooth or wooden heads to their arrows; but these were quickly discarded in favor of iron or steel, once the metals were obtainable. Another weapon rarely mentioned in accounts of our Indians, but which was quite widely used was the blow-gun. These were used by practically all of the more southerly tribes, and even by the Iroquois—although, as far as is known, the Indians of the United States did not use poisoned darts, as do the Indians of tropical America. Throwing-spears, or javelins, were important weapons of many of the eastern woodland tribes; and after the plains Indians had acquired horses, the long lance became a favorite and almost universally used weapon of warfare, as well as in hunting buffalo.

It will doubtless surprise many people to learn that our North American Indians used both the Bolas and the Boomerang. Even the tribes of New England used a form of the bolas with three round stones, enclosed in rawhide, connected by buckskin or rawhide thongs, for hunting certain kinds of game. The Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, such as the Zunis, Yumas, Pimas, Navajos, Hopis and others, used and still use, a crude type of boomerang for killing rabbits.

It is almost impossible to find a story in which Indians are mentioned that does not refer to their use of tomahawks. (the name is a corruption of the old English "Tammi-axe" or little axe). Short-handled hatchets or axes with stone heads were favorite weapons of practically all the eastern, the southern, and the middle-western tribes before the coming of the white men; and the iron or steel-headed hatchets brought by the Europeans became very widespread and popular weapons. Although the majority were plain hatchets, some were carved and cut into highly ornate forms; and combination tomahawks and pipes became common, although, as a rule, these were used only for ceremonial purposes and not as weapons.

In addition to the hatchets, or tomahawks, all of the tribes had their war clubs. These varied greatly in design. Some were mere bludgeons of heavy wood; others were of wood with a stone attached to the end by rawhide, while others had sharp stone or metal blades inserted at the striking end. In fact, the number of forms of war clubs was almost endless, for they varied not only according to the tribe but with the individual taste or ideas of the owner. With the acquisition of horses, the plains Indians' lives, customs and weapons were greatly altered to suit conditions. Although still using the short-handled-hatchet or tomahawk to some extent, they greatly preferred their own long war-clubs and long-handled, stone-headed skull-crackers. The short-handled tomahawk was effective only at close quarters, and in hand-to-hand fighting; it could not be used to split the skull of a fallen enemy as the warrior dashed by on horseback. But the four-foot wooden war-club, with its stone-weighted tip, or with sharp steel blades—or the skull-crackers with their round, or ovoid stone heads and long flexible handles of buffalo sinew or twisted rawhide—were terrible and most effective weapons, with which a warrior could bash in the head of an enemy at a distance of seven or eight feet.

WE OFTEN read of the plains Indians throwing a tomahawk at an enemy with deadly accuracy while at a full gallop. This is pure fiction, for no man—white or red and no matter how skillful—can throw a hatchet —or even a knife—with accuracy when mounted and in motion.

In order to hit his mark with the blade, the thrower must know the exact distance of his target, for a variation of even three feet will make all the difference between a weapon striking blade-on or handle-on. Every thrown weapon makes a certain number of turns in a certain distance. In fact the art or skill in knife or hatchet throwing depends very largely upon the thrower's ability to judge distance accurately—which is manifestly impossible when a man is charging forward on horseback or afoot.

Another fallacy that so frequently occurs in tales of Indians is that a skilled tracker could always identify the tribe of an Indian by the imprints of his moccasins. Many of our eastern and middle-western Indian tribes used soft buckskin or moosehide moccasins, and while each tribe had its own particular method of fitting the tongue to the uppers, the imprint would be that of the wearer's foot with no indication of how the moccasins were made. The majority of the eastern and central tribes gathered or puckered the uppers to the tongue, and while the latter might be narrow, broad, oval or wedge-shaped, the imprint left by the wearer would be the same. Even the Seminole moccasin, which is a very distinctive and unique type without a tongue but with the two sides of the uppers gathered together over the instep, leaves an imprint of the wearers foot exactly like that of a man wearing a Tarantine, an Iroquois, or a Delaware moccasin. There are, however, certain types of soft moccasins that do leave identifiable imprints, such as those of the Quapaws, which have a seam along the sole. With the plains Indians' moccasins it was a different matter, for while—with one or two exceptions—all were made with thick rawhide or parfleche soles and soft buckskin uppers, the shape of the soles varied with the different tribes.

Also, a skilled tracker, familiar with the moccasins used by the various so-called Apache tribes, the Comanches, Kiowas and others, could usually identify the tribe of an Indian by his moccasin-tracks, for most of these desert Indians used moccasins of rawhide that did not conform to the shape of the wearer's feet, as did the soft buckskin footgear of the woodland tribes.

Very much the same is the truth about the Indians' head-dresses. Certain tribes did have distinctive feather head-dresses, or wore their hair or the feather-plumes in a certain easily-recognized manner. For example, the like tufts of hair of the Pawnees, which gave the tribe its name of "Piriki" or "Little horns"; or the queue and drooping feather plume of the Blackfoot brave, or the low, diagonally-placed plume of the Cheyennes were unmistakeable means of identification; but on the other hand, each of the various tribes also wore a great many forms of elaborate head-dresses. Although the "bonnet" of the Black-feet, with its vertical feathers was very different from the bonnets of the Sioux and Cheyennes—with the feathers lying almost flat over the head—yet, for certain ceremonies and under certain conditions, a Blackfoot might wear the Sioux type of head-dress or vice versa,

In fact, the types and designs of head-dresses were innumerable, for special forms were required for the various ceremonials, dances, etc. Some were symbolical; others told those "in the know" of the brave or noteworthy deeds of the wearer; others denoted rank or social status; others were clan or "medicine" head-dresses—and in addition to all of these, the individual taste of the maker resulted in endless forms and variations of head-gear and hair-dos. It seems to be a popular idea that the larger and more spectacular the Indian's feather head-dress, the more important and famous the wearer. This, however, is not the case. Many of the most showy "war bonnets'' with double tails and hundreds of feathers are purely ornamental; whereas, on the other hand, one or two eagle feathers with "coup" marks may identify the wearer as a doer of brave deeds, a mighty warrior or a high ranking chieftan. And if we see a "war bonnet" with its plumes tipped with smaller "coup" feathers, or notched in a certain manner, we may be sure the wearer is a veteran of many battles and a mighty man in the land. To the Indian, the "coup marks" are like the service-ribbons or buttons to the white soldier. And just as those who know the significance of the veteran's multicolored ribbons, so the Indian reads in the "coup" marks the story of the wearer's deeds. Very often ''coups" may be recorded by feathers attached to lances, war-clubs, shields, or more frequently to "coup-sticks" which resemble shepherds' crooks in form.

I have a coup-stick, that belonged to Crazy Horse, that is completely covered with prime mink skins and bears eleven "coup" feathers won in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Very often both head-dresses, coup sticks. and other objects were decorated with scalps; but to the plains Indians the scalp itself was less important than the "coup", or first to touch a dead or wounded enemy; for once a foe was touched by "coup" he was considered dead, and was treated as if non-existent. The scalp once taken, dried and displayed, was of little value other than as an ornament, or to be used in fringes for garments. In fact, among most of the western tribes, taking the scalp was more of an act of vengeance or, retribution, than of obtaining a souvenir —each scalp being regarded as payment for the death of a tribesman of the taker. In somewhat the same manner, the so-called "scalp dance" was not in reality a "dance" celebrating the taking of scalps, but a chant or dirge of mourning for members of the tribe lost in battle, and with the participants standing almost motionless.

ANOTHER matter regarding which there is a deal of popular misconception is the so-called "peace pipe". The true peace pipe or Calumet was a very symbolical, elaborate affair with both a male and a female pipe, only brought forth from their wrappings on momentous occasions, and so surrounded by symbolism and ceremonies that they are incomprehensible to the average white man. The ordinary, commonly called "peace" pipe had merely a friendly or companionable meaning and was smoked on practically on all occasions of councils, discussions, or with visitors. On such occasions tobacco was used, the Indians regarding the tobacco as a sacred gift from the Great Spirit whereas on ordinary occasions— or when smoking for pleasure—the Indians used various other substances such as red willowbark, or dried leaves, sometimes with a little tobacco added.

Although we usually think of the Indians' musical instruments consisting of drums and rattles only, they also had numerous forms of fifes, flutes, whistles, trumpets, etc. However, the drums and rattles were the most important, as they were particularly adapted to the Indians' types of dancing-music and ceremonies. Each tribe had its own favorite, or popular, type of drum, and, in addition, each had a number of forms of drums—each designed for a certain purpose. There were deep, slender drums; short, broad drums; drums with double heads, and those with single heads. Many had the heads attached permanently to the barrel, while others had devices for tightening the head.

Although none of the North American Indians could transmit drum "talk" for such long distances as did the Negroes of Africa, and the Indians of South America, yet the sounds of a large buffalo-hide drum are clearly audible for fifteen to twenty miles on a still night. The Koroks of our far north west used a square drum, the Zunis had bowl-shaped pottery drums that were beaten with a peculiar light scroll-shaped "stick". Several tribes had drums no deeper than barrel-hoops. Many of the most popular, as well as the "medicine" drums were the size of tambourines with heads permanently attached, while the Pottawattomies had a remarkable water drum that was filled with water when used. The rattles varied even more than the drums, for aside from certain forms restricted to definite ceremonial and dance use, each tribe had typical forms, while, in addition, individual ideas and taste resulted in rattles of every conceivable form, size and material. There were gourd rattles, wooden rattles, rattles of rawhide, and of turtle-shells. Very often rawhide rattles would be made in the forms of frogs, turtles, birds, etc. and entire turtles, with the head and neck forming the handles, were used. A special form of ring-shaped rawhide rattle was used solely during the sun-dance of the poncas, and rattles containing sacred or "medicine" seeds were restricted to certain cermonial and ''medicine" uses.

ALTHOUGH most persons visualize an Indian's home as a conical “wigwam” of bark, or a "tipi" of skins, the Indians used a great many other kinds of houses. Many of our eastern tribes lived in well-built log houses, usually banked with dead leaves, grass, etc., during the winter. Some made huts of stones and clay and many used houses of bark slabs lashed or sewn to a framework of poles. The form varied, some being cylindrical and dome-roofed, others rectangular with an arched roof and others with gabled roofs. The Indians of the Middle West also used permanent houses of wood thatch or other material that were rectangular in form, as well as sod houses. The nomadic plains tribes were partial to the conventional tipi, for it was readily set up or taken down; it could be transported easily from place to place; it was commodious, comfortable, and weatherproof, even in the most severe winter weather. However tipis were not universally used by the far western tribes. The Navajo and some of the other desert tribes the Southwest, dwelt in partially dugout homes with an "upper story" of timbers covered with sods.

The Pueblos, of course, had their adobe dwellings and quite a number tribes used regular sod huts. In fact there was almost as much diversity among Indians' homes as among Indian weapons, moccasins or other artifacts.

Although to a person “not in know", as we might say, a Sioux in full costume might be indistinguishable from a Blackfoot, an Arapaho, Pawnee, or a Crow, a Ute, a Cheyenne, or any one of a dozen plains tribes, yet to another Indian, or to a person familiar with the Indians, there would be certain details of dress that would instantly identify the tribe of the wearer. The cut of the garments, the length and type of fringes, the style of breech-cloth and, perhaps most important of all, the type and designs of the ornamental bead and quill ornamentation.

The Sioux for example, used geometrical patterns almost exclusively, although these were often worked into conventionalized but recognizable figures of men, women, birds, various beasts, mountains, trees, and other natural objects. The Blackfeet, Cheyennes and most of the other plains tribes were also partial to geometrical forms of beadwork but often combined these with curves, scrolls, or semi-floral designs; the Utes were fond of broad bands of beadwork, the Sans Arcs combined floral patterns with squares, straight lines and geometrical figures, star-shaped designs and rosettes of curved lines and semi-circles.

The Arikaras were partial to long lines and elongated rectangles of solid colors. Many of the Assiniboin bead-work designs were composed of circles. The Pottawattomies, Menonimes, Chippewas, and neighboring tribes, employed unmistakable elaborate designs of involved geometrical figures totally unlike those of the plains tribes. Most of the tribes of the Midwest—the Osages, Kansas, Sauks and Foxes, Shawnees, and Winnebagos—preferred floral designs sometimes combined with a few geometrical figures, while practically all of the eastern tribes used floral designs exclusively. Which tribe made the best and most beautiful beadwork is perhaps a matter of personal taste and opinion. However, much depended upon the women who did the beadwork. Some were far more skillful than others; some had a better artistic taste for color combinations and designs; but taken all in all, I should say that the most beautiful and elaborate beadwork was that of the Shoshones. Very often a man's or woman's costume would be so completely covered with elaborate beadwork that it weighed as much as a heavy winter overcoat; and not infrequently a Shoshone's pony would be covered from head to tail—with head included— with fringed buckskin, every square inch of which was decorated with magnificent beadwork. In former times all beads were sewed on with sinew and in the finest work each bead was sewn on separately. As a rule, however, several beads were threaded and sewn on at a time. Even in their loom bead work the women or men (for many of the men did some of the best loom work) used sinews or horsehair. But today what beadwork is done— mainly to sell to tourists—is usually made on thread. Very often it is carelessly made with the "lazy squaw" stitch, and is a very poor imitation of the beautiful work with which the Indians decorated their garments in the past.

The End

1 comment:

Keith said...

Great article, I wish we could have more of these.
Re the tomahawk, I was given to understand that the name tomahawk came from the eastern woodlands Indian ball-headed club, can you comment on this please.
Regards, Le Loup.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.