Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

The Use of the Bow by our Indians

by Joseph Vermander

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 22, 1965-66 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!


Allow me, at the beginning, to caution you. There is, actually, very little known about the use of the bow by our Indians. For this reason you will find that much of this paper concerns itself with our own knowledge and use of the bow. I am cheered, however, by the thought that history is what we know and think today about past events and is not what actually happened yesterday. I might say that the observations which follow could have been written with greater accuracy two hundred and fifty years ago when the Indians were still masters of the Plains.

Two things should be remembered. First, the Indians possessed no written records. Therefore, much of their rich history has been forever lost. Secondly, and this is equally important, the Europeans who came here had already lost interest in the bow. They had fire-arms before they set foot anywhere in the Americas. Fire-arms impressed our Indians from the beginning and were among the first articles they desired in exchange for furs. The result was that guns became common and that the use of the bow faded into the background of Indian experience.

This trend continued for generations. Traders and explorers mention only casually that the Indians employed the bow. Of course, they were not here to study the customs of the natives. Their backers and outfitters had sent them out at great expense and, naturally, hoped for rapid profits. Had these early travellers and observers been limited to the use of the bow for their own survival, or had they been archers themselves, even if just for recreation, they could have made some interesting comparisons between Indian and European skills and techniques. Unfortunately for our purposes, they were not.

Present conditions necessary for comparison

An interesting part of any history is comparison with other periods. The "good old days" are always of interest to some. Archery, as an organized sport in Manitoba, is exactly forty years old this spring. It was considered quite a novelty, something resurrected from the Middle Ages. At that time, all the ordinary man knew about the bow was what he had read about battles in Europe and elsewhere centuries ago.

I beg your indulgence as I present a few reminiscences which should find their place in our local history. They are pertinent to this paper because they describe the conditions and experiences which gave birth to this study. In January, 1926, a group of Flemings, the people of the Flanders region of Belgium, living in St. Boniface, founded an archery club and named it after St. Sebastian, the patron saint of all archers since the early days of Catholicism in Europe. These Flemings were interested only in popinjay shooting, an archery game which has been popular in Flanders for centuries.

In the Fall of 1926 I began to hunt with the bow and in 1927 with three others (Pierre Gerbaud, Henri Grenon and Marius Mouty ) organized the first target shooting club. "Les Archers de St. Boniface" or "St. Boniface Archery Club". In shooting at targets we followed the American system, which is based, at least in part, on the English system in use since the late 1700s.

In the 40 years since the bow was re-introduced in Manitoba - I must say re-introduced, because the Indians had it first - more changes have been made in archery in the United States than in the previous 600 years in Europe. In Europe the value of the bow was based on its success in war. In the United States and Canada it is a favoured outdoor recreation. To our Indians it was an important weapon in obtaining food.

Where and how did the Indian get the Bow?

This question could, possibly, be answered if we knew - for sure - where the Indian came from - a long, long time ago.

One of the most remarkable things about the bow is that it was known the world over. The knowledge of this weapon goes back to the earliest known ages of man - It is thought to have followed the club and the spear and it would be the first weapon with which a man could strike, defensively or offensively, from a distance. Deep in the caves of the Pyrenees, the mountains between France and Spain, large murals have been discovered showing pre-historic animals being shot by bowmen of that day. The bows are long enough to be called longbows and the men are shown with well developed legs, arms and shoulders, and what we call "good form". The bow-arm is straight out and the drawing arm up and in line with the arrow.

In the Near-East (Assyria) an ancient relief sculpture, which dates 800 years before the Christian era, shows a king shooting at a lion from the back of an open chariot.

In this case the bow is of the shorter Arab or Turkish type. This is a composite reflexed bow made with a flat wooden body, a horn belly, and a sinew covered back. Years ago, here in North America, and more specifically in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado, skeletons of prehistoric animals of the mastodon type, the sloth, the camel, the horse and an extinct type of bison were unearthed, and among these remains, there were flint arrowheads, which, archaeologists estimate to be at least 4 to 5000 years old. I understand that similar remains have been found near our own Lakehead and near Carberry. Arrowheads mean men - archers. The very shape of these artifacts is sufficient proof that the men who produced them were intelligent human beings, able to think and reason that a sharp headed arrow, would bring down, more quickly, the game they hit. Right here at home in Manitoba flint arrowheads, good evidence of the early use of the bow by our Indians, have been found in many places. One such head was found on Bertrand street right in the heart of St. Boniface; it is not barbed like so many are and is of a pretty mottled red and white colour. Another was found in a plowed field near Ile des Chenes and another comes from the hilly country near Carberry. Every arrowhead has its own personal history, hidden in the distant past - perhaps thousands of years - if only they could talk ...

During those hot dry years of the 1930s the continuous high winds blew much of the top soil away in the south-western corner of our province. This left exposed a profusion of arrowheads in such a limited space that I am still wondering how they came to be left there in such numbers. Any bowman will, if at all possible, pick up his arrows and even save the precious heads of the broken ones. The idea has been advanced that these localities had been the sites of old camps or the scenes of battles. But again, why leave good arrows behind? Another possibility is that these districts were rich in game and were hunted over for ages and ages and that the arrows left behind were the accumulation of normal losses which any archer hunter accepts after a certain time of searching. Besides the flint arrowheads, I have heard of two others made of copper - one was found imbedded in an old log left in a dry creek bed somewhere in the vicinity of Minaki in Western Ontario. The other was reported from near Netley Creek north of Selkirk. It was a small piece of copper deeply imbedded in a flat bone, probably the shoulder blade of a buffalo which was badly discoloured with verdigris. The presence in Manitoba of copper artifacts of Indian origin is not unusual but it raises the question of how they came to these parts of the country. The nearest outcroppings of copper are in the Lake Superior country - Were these articles traded from other tribes or groups or did our local Indians roam as far east as Lake Superior? The presence of so many flint arrowheads raises other questions. For instance: Where did this flint originate? Was it obtained in bulk by tribes, separate camps or by individuals? Did each man flake his own arrowheads and other cutting instruments or was this done by someone especially qualified? - Again, where in Manitoba, were most of these artifacts found? If the schools throughout the province were approached they might supply us with a fair answer - More were found, I think, in the ridges and hills east and west of the Red River than in the valley itself and this might indicate that those parts became accessible before the valley did.* I raise these questions but do not know the answers.

It would seem that the last Indian of one generation to make a bow had received the idea from his father and grandfather, and they in turn from other ancestors, until ... there must have been a first cause somewhere ... but where? The bow was known the world over among nations and tribes far removed from each other in different continents.

Did the idea develop simultaneously with each group! I doubt it. Someone, - somewhere - in the far distant past must have had that first idea. Wouldn't our answer be found in the fact that man came from one source and took the bow with him wherever he went on this earth?

Artistic Licence

In the opening remarks of this paper I have mentioned how, and why, in the beginning, so little notice was taken of the Indians' way of using the bow. Although the West had been penetrated here and there by traders in the 1700s, it was not until the early 1800s that writers, artists and others, so-called sportsmen interested only in killing buffalo, began to take notice of the Indian. They found him a colourful subject waiting to be described with pen, pencil or paint brush to the curious of the outside world. These writers and artists usually accompanied some expedition and left records of their impressions which have been highly praised by successive generations, without, at least as far as I know, their evident mistakes ever being pointed out. The reason for this neglect, or oversight, can only be explained by the simple reason that the judges and critics themselves were not experienced in all the arts. Such mistakes are, I believe, classified under "Artistic Licence" - and we are supposed to accept the Artist's idea whether it is correct or riot. An example in the literary field: long ago, someone wrote, and has been copied by ever so many others, that the Indian horseman shot his arrows at his enemies from under the neck of his horse. This is impossible with a bow. It could be done with a pistol or a one-hand gun, providing the horse held its head and neck high enough and the rider clung to its mane with his left hand. The effect - or the accuracy - of such a shot can be best imagined. It would be mostly noise. What actually happened is that the Indian rider would hang behind his horse supported by the near stirrup, of whatever type he used, and was able to keep that position by the other foot being held by the opposite stirrup. In this position only his head and one shoulder would be exposed above the horse's withers and from this position a fairly effective bow or gun shot could be directed at an opponent while he remained protected by the horse. The horse itself might receive the arrow or bullet aimed at its rider. This method of riding and shooting is well illustrated in an oil painting by the American Painter George Catlin in 1834 entitled "Commanche Indian Sham Battle" which is in the Smithsonian Institute.

One of the most common errors made by painters and illustrators is to show an Indian with a bow at full draw - that is with the arrow drawn at or near its entire length and when the length of the bow is compared with that of the string, it is found that the string, as shown, is actually longer than the bow! Such "licence", I think, is unforgivable - To be specific, the loose loop of the string on a 6 ft. bow is 4 to 5 inches below the nock into which it will be pushed when the bow is braced. Another example was produced right here at home. Among the Swiss immigrants who came to the Red River in 1821, there was a 15 year old boy, Peter Rindisbacher, who had some talent for drawing. He has left a number of drawings and paintings depicting the early life among the Indians and the settlers. I will leave it to competent critics to evaluate the historic or artistic value of his works and just say that he could not have known anything about either bows or snowshoes. A water colour by Rindisbacher shows the partly finished Fort Gibraltar at the mouth of the Assiniboine River during the winter of 1821-22. On the sky line is shown the church and a couple of homes in St. Boniface with a fringe of oak trees. Among the group shown in the left foreground, on the Assiniboine river ice, is an Indian holding a braced bow which, by other proportions, would be at least 7 feet long. Indian bows rarely reached 54 inches. An undated watercolour, "Assiniboine Buffalo Hunt on Snowshoes", by the same painter and now in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is little better. Here our Indian, stepping very wide on his snowshoes, has driven an arrow into the side of a buffalo and has another one on the string full-drawn. The following errors are noticeable. Firstly, the string is longer than the bow. Secondly, the arrow is on the wrong side of the bow and the drawing hand is above the triangle formed by the arrow and the two sections of the string instead of being right at the centre where the arrow is nocked. Moreover, the position of the man drawing the bow is entirely wrong. A right-handed archer, that is, one drawing the string with his right hand, would have his left foot forward while here, we see exactly the opposite. In the same picture our Indian bow hunter wears snowshoes and is shown stepping unbelievably wide while the left snowshoe, which is being brought forward, is shown parallel to the sole of that foot - the heel up - as if the snowshoe was tied down like a skate. Another snowshoe mistake is seen in an undated water-colour "Indians Inside a Tipi" (Public Archives of Canada). Here a pair of snowshoes are shown hanging from a lodge pole and they have a heavy wooden cross-bar across that part of the snowshoe where the ball of the foot rests, instead of heavy strands of "babiche". If a snowshoe were made like this it would not last any distance under the direct weight of the wearer. The mention of these errors about the snowshoes has nothing to do with our subject, the bow, but it shows how mistakes creep in and come to be accepted as being correct. Another work of art which may be questioned is a wood engraving from a field sketch by Theodore R. Davis which shows ten American soldiers killed and mutilated by the Sioux on June 24th, 1867. If we are to believe the artist's sketch these men must have fought stark naked for here he shows them lying around in that state stuck full of arrows like pins in a cushion. To demonstrate that modern artists have not improved their bow knowledge, I cite another error.

In "Pathfinders of the West" by Agnes C. Laut (Macmillan Co., 1973) between pages 80 and 81 there is a black and white reproduction of what is probably an oil painting by Philip Goodwin where the following mistakes can be seen. First, the hunter is riding dangerously close to the buffalo but perhaps we must allow the artist that much freedom. He is shown, as usual, with a full drawn bow, using, what is called, the primary or pinch draw where the butt of the arrow is held between the bent fore-finger and the thumb. Only a child's bow can be drawn in this manner. Secondly, the drawing arm is held down, rather close to the body, instead of straight out, in line with the arrow. Thirdly, and this mistake is the worst, the arrow is shown as being held beneath the bow on the wrong side instead of resting on top. These examples are enough to show that many of those who were present in the early days did not observe properly or record correctly what they saw.

About the Language

Every human activity has its own language which allows us to talk or write about it.

The bow is a simple and very old implement and so is its language - The vocabulary must also be richer in those countries where the bow was favoured. A few expressions may be of interest especially one which is our very own. In English, the bow has two limbs, the upper and the lower, with nocks at each end to receive the string when the bow is braced - The exterior of the bow - the part away from the archer - is called the back, and the opposite, naturally, the belly - The only possible word and nothing modern about it.

The rear end of the arrow also has a notch or nock spelled n-o-c-k in which fits the bowstring. An arrow is "loosed" when discharged or released. These words "nock and loosed" so common in archery language, must be very old and are often not found in present day dictionaries.

Languages of Germanic origin or structure use a strange combination of words when speaking about the bow. One hears and reads regularly the expression "the Bow and Arrow" or "Hunting with the Bow and Arrow". Actually, the word "arrow" is superfluous. Nothing but an arrow can be shot from a bow. The same expression is used in Flemish but with the words reversed "pijl en boog," arrow and bow and the same rule seems to apply in German.

In French, we say: la chasse a fare, hunting with a bow, and le tir a l'arc, shooting the bow.

It is only natural that I should love finding something interesting in the Flemish language. It is very old and has evolved much less in the last 1000 years than French or English.

The name for the bowstring is "Boog pees" (pr. boh-pase) which, when literally translated, means "bow-tendon" and tendons (peesplural pezen) are the sinews in any animal body. From this, I deduct that the expression came into use when animal sinews were commonly used for bowstrings. This would also be long before the Flemings discovered how to make their famous bowstrings from flax and hemp. It is good to note here that our Indians also made their best bowstrings from animal sinews. Another interesting word, again in Flemish, is given to the slight noise caused by the loosed bowstring.

In English it is described as the "twang" of the bowstring. The Flemish word is: "los ronken" or the "whirring loose" of the bowstring. A well loosed arrow is silent except for that low "tchow" which can be distinctly heard a short distance away on a quiet day. Bowshooting may also have furnished a word to the French fashion world. If one sits midway along an archery range on a windless day, one can hear the arrows as they fly past.

This rustling noise is quite properly called "frou frou" and the same word is applied to the rustling of a woman's silken petticoats. All these examples are used to come to our home product.

Here in the West a new and correct word has been contributed by our early voyageurs or Métis.

This word is "pare-fleche" correctly spelled in two words joined with the hyphen but quite often written as one word. I have found it in only one dictionary, Webster's, which defines the word as: a raw buffalo hide, soaked in lye to remove the hair, and dried - one does not need lye - wood ashes in water have the same effect.

Actually a "pare-fleche" is an Indian shield made of dried and toughened buffalo hide. Such a shield was only a light weight on the left arm but it was arrow proof and when turned obliquely would deflect a shot from the old smooth-bore rifles.

Pare-fleche is of the same company as older words such as: parapluie, umbrella, parasol, sunshade, parachute, pare-etincelles for spark or fire screen, pare-brise for wind shield, or pare-balles for a bullet proof cover or garment. "Pare-fleche" is our very own, it should be preserved and spelled correctly. It explains exactly what it was intended to do, i.e. to shield against the arrow.

The Bow

With our near or distant European background we are inclined to make comparisons which are not quite justified as conditions in the past were not the same as those of the present.

The bow - in Europe, was a weapon of war. It was used by one group of men against another.

With our Indian the bow was, first of all, a hunting weapon. Here, in order to be successful, he had to be not only an able bowman, but also a good hunter, able to get within bow range of his game.

True, the Indian was also a warrior, but his battles were not like those in Europe. The Indian affairs were usually surprise attacks by small groups. They would strike quickly and disappear just as quickly. Another important difference was in obtaining suitable weapons. In Europe they had trained tradesmen to do this work while each Indian was on his own craftsman. The Indian tradition was limited to the grandfather interesting himself in his grandsons in making them bows and teaching them how to shoot.

It should be pointed out here that any reference to the long bow in this paper refers to that type of bow which was in common use until 1930, and not to the reflexed bows which one usually sees these days.

The regular wooden bow has certain weaknesses. I mention them, briefly, because our Indians who had no technical or scientific training, were aware of them in their bows and tried to correct them in an interesting way. The weakness of the wooden longbow is that, when fully drawn, the back is under great tension and, if drawn too far, may explode, while the belly can only stand so much compression before it starts to fret or cut itself. To prevent this, American archers with an engineering mind, in about 1930, developed a flat bow, narrow and deep in the grip, with wider and thinner limbs than the old type.

The volume of the limbs of this flat bow is about the same as in the regular longbow but it is distributed differently. The limbs, being wide and thin, allow the same draw as in a longer bow and, being shorter, give greater cast. The name given this new bow is the American flat bow.

It is well to remember these points, when we make comparisons with the Indians' method.

Making a bow is not particularly difficult providing one has a choice of bow wood - a few tools and much, very much, patience.

Some woods demand a different treatment than others. They must be properly dried and worked down according to the grain or the knots that may be found in a staff. With any wooden bow there is the ever present danger of the back being injured and raising a splinter.

There is also a tendency for the bow to follow the string, that is - to remain partly bent even when not braced. To prevent this, a tougher, more pliable wood like ash or hickory, or even a layer of rawhide, may be glued to the back. As for the following of the string, the bow limbs joined in the grip, may be set back at an angle or, if the stave is long enough, the limbs may be steamed in the desired reverse position. The position of the limbs adds to the cast of the bow.

The foregoing may be a little lengthy, but, please remember we will need it to see how our Indians tried to solve the same problem.

Our Indians did not have our technical "know-how" and only later some of our tools - They used the best wood they knew of and scraped it down to a desired shape. You will remember how I criticized some artists for their "licence" in showing what there was not. To be fair, we must give credit when it is due. In examining copies of those paintings and drawings I found it strange that so many of the bows, shown by different artists, were of the reversed type - one artist surely could not have copied another in so many different places and periods.

The Indian knew how to reverse the bow limbs and did it in a most simple and ingenious way which one observer describes as follows:

They take a piece of green wood and work it down to the shape of a bow. Then, with the back of the bow against a pole, they place a binding, midway on each limb.

This done, they take wedges and force them between the pole and the grip of the bow, forcing the grip below the line of the limbs. They leave it in this position until thoroughly dry.

The Indians, at least those of our central region, made their bows of oak, ash, or choke-cherry with the preference going to oak. Chokecherry wood would also be much in demand on account of its wider range. Away to the south, the Indians had found a good bowwood and they traded it to other tribes. Early French traders named it bois-d'arc, bowwood. Later it received the name of osage. This wood, as a bowwood, has few equals and, as we shall see further on, some must have found its way this far North among our Western Indians.

The Indian had the bow before we gave him iron tools. We can only guess at the time it took him to shape it with a price of flint.

Some of our Prairie Indians, when bent on war, would attack a piece of sharpened horn to one bow tip and use this like a bayonet in hand to hand fighting. It may also be said that the Prairie Indians retained the bow longer than the more Northern ones and often were proud to be able to down buffalo without the white man's superior fire-arms.

Here and there, an old Indian bow has been saved. There is one in the Winnipeg Museum - kindly shown to me by the curator Mr. Richard Sutton. This bow must have been about 54" long and was probably of oak. It is only partly complete but still shows its artificial reflex. What is remarkable about it, is that the one remaining bow-tip has only one lateral nock. If the nock on the missing tip was on the opposite side, the bow string would lie diagonally across the belly of the bow and not along the middle as is the accepted method. In spite of the age of this relic, the edger of the back, sides and belly remain too cleanly square to have been scraped down with a stone tool. A knife must have been used.

Regarding Indian bows we are fortunate to have close at hand a specimen which I think is a "jewel" of its kind. This bow was collected and preserved by the Hudson's Bay Company. It was part of their historical collection in the store and is now at the Lower Fort Garry Museum.

Thanks to the kindness of Miss Barbara Johnstone, the curator, a good description of this bow is available.

The bow is 45 inches long and of the flat type with wide tapering limbs. The limbs have been set back as already described. The back of the limbs is protected with snake skin while the bow tips are covered with rawhide. The midsection of each limb is tightly wrapped with linen cord which would also strengthen and protect them.

The inner side of the grip is padded with black feathers - probably crow or raven - and the whole is also wrapped with cord. This cord shows our native bowman had access to a trading post. The erstwhile owner of this bow must have been artistically inclined. The belly of the bow is painted red - parts of the linen wrappings are painted blue - now faded. The bow tips are covered with red flannel which prevents seeing the type of nocks - and the bow tips have long strands of white horse hair, also partly coloured.

And finally, to show he had a woman interested in him, we find a ring of very fine embroidered rosettes around the edges of the grip. This is probably an example of an Indian bowyer's work at its best.

The String: Much can be said about the bow, or the arrow but no bow is better than its unobtrusive string. The bowstring should be thin and strong enough to stand the shock of the bow limbs. A broken string often means a shattered bow. Our Indians used the twisted sinews from the larger animals. Sinews make good bowstrings and their use has been common in many parts of the world.

Arrows: It is when the question of arrows is considered that the Indian, as compared to us, was at his greatest disadvantage. In order to be accurate an arrow must be straight and properly feathered. No matter how good the bow, or how dexterous the archer, it is the arrow that flies true or misses. To make our arrows we can buy ready-made dowels or else go to the lumber yard and chose a board of straight grained birch - 32 inches long- and have this ripped into squares of about 3/4 inch. Putting these squares in a grooved block we take off all edges with a small plane and make a dowel-like shaft. This we cut down to 28 inches, rub it with sandpaper and steel wool, test its stiffness, cut a nock in one end and affix the feathers - this last the most delicate operation of all - and then according to the purpose it is to be used for, we affix the head, blunt or sharp. The foregoing is a very brief synopsis of how a field arrow can be made. The arrow maker or fletcher's trade is a real art, the secret of which is to produce a set of arrows that will behave alike. May I add here that there is much satisfaction in shaping one's own bows or arrows. While the hands are busy the mind is full of hopes of successes to come.

But what about our Indian? He had none of the above, no lumber yard, no board, no dowels. Only what Mother Nature provided in the bush. Saskatoon and Choke-cherry were preferred. They were straight, fairly hard, and did not split easily. The sticks would be scraped and cleaned, even rubbed between two stones and put away to dry. A bent shaft would usually be straightened by first heating it over a fire and bending it gently into shape.

Some Indians made their arrows 6 hands long. This would give them about 26 inches. With their short bows these arrows could not be pulled to the head without endangering the bow.

The nocks of all the Indian arrows I have ever seen were uneven in width and not as deep as ours.

This may have had some effect on the manner in which the arrow was nocked and drawn. This will be considered further-on-in drawing the bow. In order to make a hunting arrow effective it must have a sharp head for all but the smallest game. Even here very small flint heads were used. This is proven by the numbers of such heads which have been found.

Some Indians may have had difficulty in obtaining the usual flint heads and turned to iron when they could obtain it. One was seen to use the back of an old axe head as an anvil, on which, with a chisel, he cut out arrow heads from a piece of hoop iron. Sharpened with a file, such heads would be very effective in cutting the smallest blood vessels. An arrow has not got the shocking power of a bullet. It kills by hemorrhage.

On drawing the Bow and the Release

You will have noticed that there is a continual reference to the way we do or did things, and the way the Indians did it. This, I think, is necessary in order that "non-archers" may better understand the differences in handling a weapon as simple as the bow.

Although the bow is known the world over there are many different ways of drawing it, but, please note, in every way the palm of one hand must face the other. Also, except in one case as far as I have found out, the arrow is always placed on the left side of the bow - that is, on top of the bow when it is held horizontally. I shall, briefly, describe six different ways of drawing a bow and add that the sixth draw, that of our Indians, was not known when the others were listed.

The first one is the pinch or primary draw, so called because it seems to be known the world over. It is usually used by children and beginners until shown a better way. It is very weak as the butt of the arrow is only held between the curved fore-finger and the thumb. The second one is the two finger draw where the index is placed on the string above the arrow and the middle finger below it while the string is held about the middle of the first joints. This draw is often referred to as the Flemish draw because it was, and still is, much used in Flanders by the archers of that country. However, it was also used in the south of France. It allows a very neat loose, but requires strong fingers. Number three is the 3 finger draw, where the third finger also finds its place on the string. It has also been called the Mediterranean draw because it developed in that region of Europe. Those who gave it that name cannot have known that our Canadian Eskimos used the same technique. For a magnificent example see the photos of Gontran de Poncins in The Beaver (March, 1940), Outfit 270, No. 4.

In the fourth method, all four fingers are placed together under the arrow. This draw has been used for some years in California. It is a very powerful draw and has been named the Sioux draw. It is claimed it originated with the tribe. This is possible. However, a similar draw with the three fingers and the little one curled in the hand, is used in Asia - See a photograph in the National Geographic Magazine for September 1961.

The fifth method is the thumb draw which was used by the Turks and their neighbours. These people were the best archers who ever came into contact with the Franks or Europeans. In this case the bow-hand is reversed - palm upwards - the bow is slanted to the left and the arrow is placed on the right side of the bow. The thumb of the drawing hand is then hooked under the string, locked by the third and fourth fingers while the index may rest lightly along the butt of the arrow. This is probably the most powerful draw of all and for this reason, the tip of the thumb must be protected with a specially made ring. This draw is still used in Southern Mongolia to this day.

I have kept our Indian's draw for the last. It is different again from the preceding ones. To nock the arrow, the bow is held about horizontal and the arrow placed on top or on the left side of the bow. The index is bent sharply at the knuckle with the two first joints along the string - not across it - with the tip just touching the arrow. The second and third fingers are bent in the same manner and also placed along the string, below the arrow, The butt end of the arrow, the nock, is thus held in place on the string between the tips of the first and second fingers and the thumb. I doubt if a heavy bow could be drawn in this manner. Compared with our long, measured draw, the Indians used more of a rapid snatch and loose. This would give the greatest speed to the arrow.

It will be remembered I mentioned the shallow, uneven nocks of the arrows that would rarely fit snugly on the string. This may be the reason why the arrow was held in place with the finger tips and the fingers placed along the string. From personal observation and other information I know that this last mentioned draw was used by the Indians of the Roseau River Reserve, in southern Manitoba, by those of the Fort Alexander Reserve on the Winnipeg River, at the Pas and Cumberland House in the North, as well as in the Ghost River District in Northern Ontario.

This indicates, I believe, that this particular draw was quite common here.

If I may digress for a moment from our main theme I would like to say that the thumb draw, so common to the Turks and Mongolians, was also known in North America. Those who received Reader's Digest in 1961, may remember a condensation of the story of Ishi, the last member of a Yaki tribe of Indians in California. Ishi was found and cared for during the last years of his life, at the University of California where Doctor Saxton Pope became his physician and friend. This Ishi was a stone-age Indian. He was able to flake arrow heads from flint, obsidian, and even ordinary bottle glass. He naturally made his own bows, of the flat type, and excellent arrows. And what was remarkable was his perfect thumb draw with the bow held almost horizontally and the arrow on the right side of the bow. Somewhere in the distant past, Ishi's ancestors brought this method with them probably from Asia where the thumb draw was known centuries ago and is still used today. Ishi was a real anthropological find. Through him Dr. Pope became interested in the use of the bow and wrote much about it. This could be one of the reasons the bow became so popular in the United States in the 1920s, and a little later in Canada.


In order to hit a certain mark with an arrow it must first be properly aimed and drawn and finally correctly loosened. There are three methods of aiming an arrow in use among our archers today and one of these was used by our Indians. The first method is the one where the archer lines up his arrow with the mark he hopes to hit. This is what our Indians did. Then, according to the weight of his bow, and his experience in estimating distances, he held his arrow at a certain angle before loosening it. This is a very fast and most natural method.

To be skillful at it, much practice is required. If learned in one's youth it comes much easier. It is like learning to throw a ball accurately. The correct name for this method of aiming is to shoot "by intuition". This word may sound a little "bookish" but it is correct because such aiming and shooting is a spontaneous intellectual act. In French we have an easier and very correct expression: "au juger", meaning by "judgment" no matter how fast or slow the action is performed.

I bring this up as a sort of protest against an expression which, of late, has crept into our English language terms and whereby they call this method of aiming: "instinctive". Nobody aims an arrow nor shoots a bow by instinct. Too much human intelligence is required to perform these actions.

The other methods must be mentioned briefly and only as a matter of comparison; they belong to the scientific side of archery. The second method is the "point of aim" system, where, at a known distance, the tip or pile of the arrow is aimed at a definite point - on - above - or even below the bull's eye in order to obtain the proper elevation. The third is the "sight method". Here a pin is affixed to the bow and held on the bull's eye. It is raised or lowered according to the distance. Our Indians were practical bowmen. In hunting they never shot from great distances. They used the natural intuitive method from childhood on and must have been masters at it.

On Accuracy

At this point it is only natural to ask how accurate one can be with a bow. How about our Indians.

With a bow, accuracy does not come easily. It must not be compared with a fire-arm. So much depends on the archer and his arrows - and the circumstances under which the shooting is done.

There are two fields where an archer's ability can be tested.

One is at targets where the distances are known, and the archer can shoot as he pleases.

Since he also shoots six arrows to the end - that is - six arrows, one after another, he has more chance of running up a good score than if he shot only one arrow.

The other test is called field archery which really has two phases. First, the archers shoot at Rovers, a game where a small group walk across the fields and shoot at different marks - some close by - some far away - and only one shot is allowed. This is good practice and fairly close to hunting conditions - except of course - that game rarely cooperates and runs or flies away. The real test of a field archer is in hunting provided he is so inclined out of pleasure or necessity. All men do not possess that hunting instinct. Hunting small game with a bow is not easy. One year, back in the '30s, during an open partridge season, I kept a record, to see how many shots it took to make a hit. In the thick under brush, where a feather touching the smallest branch, is sufficient to veer an arrow off course, it was 1a. Most shots had to be taken through a narrow opening, only the width of a hand. The gratifying part of there efforts was that more than half of the birds were shot through the head or the neck. As this was - often - all we could see of the bird.

In the open we would make a hit in 3 to five shots from as far as 48 paces. A low miss would - usually - remain without effect but a very close one, above or to one side, would scare the bird away. In making any comparison the Indian should be favoured. He relied on his bow for food while for us it was only a pastime to be tried a few days each Fall.

Above all, the Indians were good hunters. They would use all their skill and patience in stalking their game, large or small, to within the desired range for a good shot.

Personal Recollections

If Archery had been common here at an earlier date I feel we would have had much colour to add to a paper of this kind. When we returned to St. Boniface in 1903 there were many Métis "old timers" around who abounded with memories of former days. I was too young then to pay much attention to all that was being said, but some stories struck a more sensitive chord than others. There were accounts of trading trips out West and of the celebrations that took place on their return on the open ground between Fort Garry and the Red River - If trading had been good there would even be champagne!

Another story was about an Indian buffalo hunter somewhere to the South. A party of white sportsmen had come out to shoot buffalo. - This was at the time when just killing buffalo was considered great sport - They added some Indians to their party - and probably some Métis hunters - (who later may have brought the story back to the Red River?)

Before the hunt, one Indian had said he would offer one of his arrows to the white Chief, but only after he had shot it through the body of a running buffalo which he did!

Seeing this done, one of the party had remarked, "What a bow" to which the other replied, "not what a bow, but what a man"! Many years later I read how in 1872 General Sheridan of the U.S. Army with Buffalo Bill Cody as his assistant arranged a Western tour for Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. The tour would include shooting buffalo - and - on an occasion Two Lance, a Sioux Indian, had sent an arrow completely through the body of a running buffalo a feat that no other Sioux then alive could accomplish.

I can not, of course, verify the source of my story of 1903 but they sound very much alike.

The question of shooting an arrow through a buffalo seems to have been a feat common to the best Indian bowmen. Two Northern Cheyenne Indians with the colourful names of "Big Ribs" and "Strong Left Hand" were each credited with having shot one arrow through two buffalo and killing both.

Personally, I think that to make this possible there must have been a combination of favourable circumstances: A strong bow, a very sharp arrow, a capable bowman, and finally, two buffalo running very close together - perhaps a cow trying to shelter her calf from the horseman.

My friend and neighbour, the late Guillaume Charette, told me he heard his father relate that in earlier days he had often seen an Indian pick out his arrow from the opposite side of a buffalo. Our prairie Indians kept the bow longer than the Woods Indians and were proud to be able to use it so effectively.

Eventually, however, the bow, like the buffalo, would disappear - The bow would survive a while longer, as a standby, in case of emergency.

Any person interested in history is happy when he discovers something which he thinks is original. This was the case with the Indian draw where the fingers are placed along the bowstring instead of across.

This was first shown to me in 1926 by the late Father Elie Rocan, then parish priest at Ste. Agathe, Manitoba, during a picnic at St. Norbert. Father Rocan explained how he had learned it while a student at St. Boniface College in the 1880s. Students, boarders, who came from distant Northern Posts often brought Indian bows and arrows with them and showed others how to use them. A favourite target was a student's cap placed on a stick. Later observations proved this draw was used all through our part of the country.

Allow me to cite a couple more examples.

On Christmas day, 1927 when my neighbour Albert Muller, came to visit us, I showed him the partly finished bow I was making, drawing it the way we do, with three fingers.

Now, in order to estimate the proper value of the comments Albert made, the following personal remarks are necessary. Albert came to Manitoba as a small child when his parents settled on a homestead some distance north of Holland. This was in the late 1870s. Due to the times and distance, Albert had very little schooling, probably only a little during the winter months. He had no interest in books: he loved horses. The Muller homestead was on, or near, an Indian trail which came from Lake Manitoba and led to the south-west of the province. Passing Indians stopped there regularly. They would make tea in the fire-place and leave more fire-wood.

When Albert saw me hold the bow in the usual perpendicular position, he remarked that that was not the Indian way. He then took the bow and stretched out his arm palm upwards.

In this position any regular finger draw is almost impossible. The thumb dra seems natural, but, unfortunately, Albert could not give any information on that.

What was more important, I think, was his other so simple and spontaneous remark, "and they had a stone in the tip of their arrows".

He had never read a line in a book or paper about Indian bows or arrows but he had seen the flint tipped arrows of those Indians.

This happened right here in Manitoba in the early 1880s just eighty years ago. It would be interesting to know where these Indians had obtained these arrow heads and how long they kept and used them. An interesting person I was privileged to know years ago was Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice, O.M.I. (1859-1938) who in the 1880s had done missionary work in the interior of British Columbia. Father Morice was a member of several Canadian, American and European scientific societies and had many books to his credit. He wrote in English as well as in French.

In his book "Au. Pays de l'Ours Noir", which if ever translated, would probably be entitled: "In the Country of the Black Bear", he writes how "his" Indians - the Denes, the Carriers and the Sekanais - made bows of mountain maple (my translation) at least five and a half feet long the back of which they covered with caribou sinew. Some even made hunting bows of willow without any backing.

The Carriers made 4 foot bows of juniper and also had the habit of affixing a flint point to one end of the bow so that, in close-in fighting it could be used as a bayonet.

One day as we were practising on our range in the old college grounds, now Provencher Park, Father Morice passed, stopped to chat and to examine our tackle.

He paid particular attention to some Belgian target arrows the shafts of which were finished with fluted impressions. He then remarked that his Indians used to cut a single but deeper groove along their arrows.

This custom had been reported by other observers who gave as reason that the groove helped the flow of blood from a wounded animal. I mentioned this to Father Morice, adding that, in my opinion, it would be the width of the arrow head, the keenness of its edges and its penetration, rather than the groove, that would determine the flow of blood.

He agreed and explained further that, according to the Indians, the blood flowing along the groove would leave a better trail to follow.

Another story proves that the bow was still used here, occasionally, long after fire-arms were common.

The story was told by Alexandre Riel, younger brother of Louis, Head of our Provisional Government of 1869.

I knew him well and we had many interesting conversations about Manitoba's early days. This story, which fits our subject happened about the middle 1870s, when Alexandre was still a small boy.

It happened one summer evening close by here in St. Vital. The family was sitting outside and the cattle were some distance away near the bush, when something scared them so that they moved closer to the buildings that is, all, except one small calf which stayed behind.

Joseph, the oldest of the children, curious as to what had frightened the cattle, went over but failed to see anything. He then went to the little calf which still had not moved.

He patted the animal asking why it had not run off like the rest of the herd. As he passed his hand on the off side of the animal he found an arrow driven into its body right up to the feathers. No wonder the calf could not move; it was dying on its feet. This also shows what an effective silent weapon the bow can be. The family had an unexpected supply of fresh veal but they never found out who shot that arrow.

These are just a few happenings, regarding the bow, which I have been able to collect.

There must be many similar ones still not forgotten and worth preserving. Small as they are, they are part of our history.

Written Record

In perusing books on our early history we often find a simple mention of the bow around which, with a little imagination, an interesting story can be built.

The oldest mention I have found is in LaVerendrye's journal: 31st December 1734. LaVerendrye was at Fort St. Charles in the N. W. Angle of the Lake of the Woods. A group of Cree and Assiniboines from the Lake Winnipeg district representing 1000 lodges arrived within one half day's travel and sent two messengers to ask if they would be received. LaVerendrye sent his son, Jean Baptiste, and a "voyageur" with gifts of tobacco and corn and to arrange for a meeting.

As they approached the Indian camp they were welcomed with a salvo from two muskets and, note well, the Indians who did not have muskets shot arrows high into the air.

This seems to be the natural reaction of a bowman and, although it is not mentioned, one may well ask if each bow shot was not accompanied with a lusty yell!

After all, the bow is silent, and it is the noise of a gun's explosion which imparts the welcome idea. The louder the better! ...

The tragic loss which befell LaVerendrye shortly afterwards is well known. Young Jean-Baptiste, Jesuit Father Aulneau, the missionary, and nineteen voyageurs on their way to Montreal were killed by Sioux Indians while encamped on a small island about one day's travel from their Fort.

There has been much speculation as to how all this happened. There must have been a terrific fight while it lasted after which the Sioux fled back to the Red River country leaving some blood stained canoes on the western shore of the lake.

The bodies of the slain voyageurs were interred within the stockade of Fort St. Charles, which was later abandoned and its location lost until 1908 when it was found after a long search by a group of Fathers from St. Boniface College. Among the relics which were found there was one skull which had an arrow head driven deep through the jawbone. I saw this skull before it was destroyed in the college fire of 1922. From the direction of the arrow head in the jawbone I think that the arrow was shot while the man was lying down, probably asleep. And that the camp was taken by surprise, a favorite Indian tactic. This same arrowhead, probably as intact as ever, must be buried in the debris with which the college basement was filled after the fire. Wherever it is, it has a story all of its own.

The Easterners and Europeans who came here were not Archers. They had fire-arms and did not look at the bow (It was only fit for the Indian), although some felt an admiration for the Indians skill.

The early Métis, however, had accepted the bow and used it as a standby in case powder or ball were not available.

While chiding them for looking for arrow wood, on Sundays, one author, Alex Ross describes them as clever hunters.

In order to approach buffalo in winter time they would crouch on a toboggan covered with skins, and drawn by two or three dogs. In this manner they would get within bowshot of buffalo which were used to coyotes hanging around. Since the bow was silent there was no danger of stampeding the game out of range. In using this tactic the Métis probably copied and improved on the Indians' method as we know that they - the Indians - would simulate a buffalo by sitting hunched on a horse covered with a buffalo hide.

Much has been written about the buffalo hunts of the Métis - quietly they would come as close as possible to a herd before giving their horses free rein. Once within range - that is quite close and a little behind a buffalo they were able to fire from four to five shots a minute from their muzzle-loading guns. An Indian, providing he rode a good buffalo runner, would do better than that, with a bow.

In carrying arrows the old method with us is to have a reasonable supply in a quiver which hangs from a loose belt. This, I think, is still the easiest way for the quick drawing of an arrow. The quiver can be slid forward or pushed back behind the point of the hip when not needed. Some present day archers carry them in the middle of their backs. I wonder how they can pick a particular arrow if they want it, or with what ease they return arrows to the quiver they do not see. Our Indians seemed to prefer carrying their quiver diagonally across their back with the tip just over their left shoulder. The bow would be placed in the same quiver or in a separate one, but attached to the first. Indian quivers were made of young animal skins or tanned leather and embellished with ornaments.

In a standing position the Indian would hold his bow nearly vertical and, on horseback, often more horizontal. In that forward bent position his quiver would be within easy reach. One observer reported that the act of drawing an arrow from the quiver, nocking and shooting it was all one continuous graceful motion.

Much has been written about the hunting of the buffalo on horseback, with the gun and the bow as well.

In doing so not enough credit was given to the horse which, very often, took the hunter so close to his game that he could hardly miss.

In comparison, the Indian on foot was by far the better hunter.

In conclusion, I would like to quote what Henry Youle Hind wrote in his Narrative of the Red River Expedition of 1857. The event took place in the Qu'Appelle Valley and was observed through a telescope.

"Armed with his bow from the bois d'art (I wonder how Mr. Hind knew about this wood and how the wood got up here so far from its country of origin) his arrows from the Mesaskatomina (saskatoon), neatly feathered with the plumes of a wild duck, and headed with a barb fashioned with a bit of iron hoop, the young Plains Cree threw off his leather hunting shirt, jumped on a horse and hurried across the valley.

Dismounting at the foot of the bank, he rapidly ascended its steep sides and just before reaching the top, cautiously approached a large boulder which lay on the brink, and crouched behind it. The buffalo was within forty yards of the spot where the Indian crouched, and slowly approaching the valley as he leisurely cropped the tufts of parched herbage which the sterile soil was capable of supporting.

When within twenty yards of the Indian the bull raised his head, snuffed the air, and began to paw the ground.

Lying at full length, the Indian sent an arrow into the side of his huge antagonist. The bull shook his head and mane, planted his fore feet firmly in front of him, and looked from side to side to search his unseen foe, who, after driving the arrow, had again crouched behind the boulder.

Soon, however, observing the fixed attitude of the bull, a sure sign he was severely wounded, he stepped to one side and showed himself.

The bull instantly charged, but within five yards of his nimble enemy, the Indian sprang lightly behind the boulder and the bull plunged headlong down the hill, receiving, after he passed the Indian, a second arrow in his flanks.

As soon as he reached the bottom, he fell on his knees, and looked over his shoulder at his wary antagonist, who, however, speedily followed, and observing the bull's helpless condition, sat on the ground within a few yards of him and waited for the death gasp.

After one or two efforts to rise, the huge animal drooped his head and gave up the strife.

The Indian was at his side without a moment's pause, - cut out his tongue, caught his horse, an excited spectator of the conflict - and galloping across the valley, handed me the trophy of his success."

I think this is a good picture of our Indian at his best.

*Editor's Note: Professor Steinbring's present excavations and explorations indicate the Carberry Plain to be the site of earliest man in this region.

Page revised: 23 November 2019

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.