Talk the Talk

A self-bow is a weapon made from a single piece of wood while the more advanced composite-bow incorporates several materials such as wood, horn or whatever was available to the craftsman making it.

Walk the Walk

Once his bow and arrows were made, a Native American warrior would decorate them with his own personal design of complex geometrical patterns so that his kills could be identified on the battlefield or at the end of a hunt.

Archery Quote

"The first gift I received from my father was a bow and arrows. He made them himself. He painted the bow red, which signified that he had been wounded in battle.

I was very young at the time, so the arrows were fashioned with knobs on the end, instead of the sharp points. The bow was not a strong one to pull. That bow and arrows was the beginning of my Indian training. It was to be my weapon in war, and was to get my food for me. I always kept it near me".

~ Standing Bear ~

 The Making of the Native American Bow and Arrow

Although archery is synonymous with Native American warriors, it began on the continent relatively late and was not invented there until around 500 CE. One of the earliest areas to use it was Iowa, a region that had already been populated for around 11,500 years by the time the bow and arrow came into use.

It soon replaced the spear as the primary hunting tool and weapon of war as it provided the warrior with several advantages. It had far more rapid fire capabilities, better accuracy, it allowed a warrior greater mobility and as spearheads were much larger, they also needed more raw materials to make compared to arrow heads.

Making the Native American Bow

The materials used by Native American craftsmen to make a bow would vary depending on what resources were available and what type of bow it would be. Earlier bows made before the introduction of the horse to a given region were intended for use on foot. They would be up to five feet tall and usually just made of wood, commonly known as a self-bow.

If it was intended to be used while mounted on horseback, it would be shorter to make it more manoeuvrable and made of a mixture of materials (known as a composite-bow) such as wood, horn or antler.

Making a bow was a complex job that took time and a considerable amount of skill. The wood for a bow would be stretched for a week or more by the craftsman who would then cut notches at either end for the string.

Next, it would be coated in protective liquids and allowed to dry out over a fire before the imperfections on the bow were smoothed out and the other components such as the bow string attached.

Adding the String to the Bow

The strings could be made from various materials, depending on what was available to the craftsman at the time. They were often made from sinew taken from a back or leg tendon of an animal (often a buffalo), from rawhide, cord from the neck of a turtle or from the gut of an animal.

The string could also be made from plant fibres such as nettles, milkweed, dogbane or the inner bark of trees such as the basswood. Strings made from plant fibres involved much more work so were less common but as they were more stretch resistant and more durable in damp conditions, they tended to be of a higher quality.

Leather wrist guards were worn to protect the Native American warrior from the impact of the bowstring though in some cases they could be made of carved bone, ivory, antler or, as with the Navajo Tribe, they could even be ornate silver bracers.

Making Arrows

The arrows could be made from a variety of shoots or reeds that were heated, straightened and weighted with a wooden shaft in a process that was very similar to that used for making the bow.

The head of the arrow could be made from stone or antler that would be ground down, beat into small pieces and then sharpened (though after the arrival of the European they would be replaced by metal arrow heads). A hole would be bore into the bottom of the arrow head so it could be attached to the arrow then it would be secured with buffalo hide.

A feather fletching was used to give the arrow balance and to improve its trajectory; turkey feathers were a favoured choice but they could also come from crows, eagles, hawks or geese.

The process involved in making arrows was very time consuming, even more so than making the bows as the warriors of a tribe would need many arrows. This was especially true in times of on-going intertribal warfare and during the period of European encroachment.

When the firearm was brought to America, use of the bow and arrow as the primary weapon of war began wane but it was not until the invention of the rifle that the gun gave a Native American warrior better range and accuracy. However it was never fully replaced as the bow and arrow was much quieter, which was advantageous during stealth attacks.

Today the tradition of making bow and arrows lives on amongst Native Americans, though they are no longer used as weapons of war and are now instead used for ceremonial purposes, sport or sold as craftworks.

Further Reading

Archery Equipment of the Americas. [Internet]. 2013. The Museum of Anthropology. Available from: [Accessed January 17, 2014].

Native American Products. [Internet]. 2009. The University of Chicago. Available from: [
Accessed January 17, 2014].

Weitzel, T. [Internet]. 2013. American Indian Archery Technology. The University of Iowa. Available from: [
Accessed January 17, 2014].

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