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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


The principal weapon for hunting and also for war was the bow and arrow. The bow, called tanika (P), ktca (N, C, S), oli (C), and ywe (S), was fairly heavy, about three feet in length, and about two inches in width at its broadest part. The outer curve of its cross-section was about 90 degrees. It was usually made of spruce or incense cedar and was often reinforced with a fairly heavy backing of sinew. According to Powers,81 “all the dwellers on the plains, and as far up as the cedar-line, bought all their bows and many of their arrows from the upper mountaineers. An Indian is ten days in making a bow, and it is valued at $3, $4, and $5, according to the workmanship; an arrow at 12 1/2 cents.”

However, at Knights Ferry, on the Stanislaus river, the sinew-backed bow was made from the ash tree (Fraxinus oregana), pa'asu.

In the mountains of the Central Miwok territory a cedar bough selected for the bow was hacked from the tree and roughly trimmed down with a sharp-edged stone. Then it was worked down by scraping with a flake of black obsidian, or a split deer leg bone, and rubbing with a stone “like emery” (paaya, C) and with a piece of scouring rush, Equisetum arvense (sakayu, C). The stone was also used for filing the nocks in the bow.

The bow was bent into shape when green, by warming it over the fire. After four or five days of seasoning, deer sinew was applied to the back of the bow. The sinew had been dried on some previous occasion and was now chewed to soften it. It was applied with the fibers running lengthwise of the bow. It was applied in thin layers, pasted on with soaproot juice. A small soaproot, called wolone (C), was roasted, dipped in water, and rubbed over each layer of dried sinew on the back of the bow, giving it a water-tight sealing.

The bow string (tumappa, C) was of twisted milkweed (tumuka, C) fiber, or of sinew. A section about two inches in length, about six inches from the upper end, was wrapped with a half-inch strip of beaver, otter (mesu, C), or other fur, hair side out. This served to deaden the twang of the bow string. Around the center of the bow string was wound a half-inch strip of otter fur, hair side out, lashed securely with deer sinew. This was believed to make a better hold for the nock of the arrow. Perhaps, too, it served to cushion the wrist against the snap of the bow string.

A bow without sinew back was sometimes made for bird killing. Each man usually had one bow, but not every man made his own. The maker of bows was also the maker of arrows. The arrow-release was of the primary type and the bow was held vertically.

The bow, illustrated in plate LIX, fig 1, from Calaveras county, is heavily backed with sinew. The wooden tips are completely covered with it, the sinew of the back of the bow being brought onto the belly side of each tip. Apparently the recurved ends of the nocks are of sinew only, which has become very hard and, at the base of the nock, successfully resists the pull of the bowstring. The sinew at the tip of each nock is folded so as to expose no end. In fact, nowhere on the back is a loose end of sinew visible. The sinew on the back has the appearance of the bark of a tree or shrub. At the center of the bow is a wrapping of a narrow strip of buckskin which passes around the bow thirty times. The bowstring is of three-ply sinew cord. In plate LIX, fig. 1, the bow is shown in reverse. A careful scrutiny of the picture reveals the boundary of sinew and wood along the edge. A similar bow (70242) was seen in the Field Museum of Natural History with the bowstring of three-ply sinew cord split into two three-ply smaller cords to form a half hitch around each nock.

Bow 50.6439 in the American Museum of Natural History is from a “Calaveras county chief.” It is similar to the two discussed in the paragraph above. It is figured and its type discussed by Dixon.82

Another bow (70241), in the Field Museum of Natural History, is unfinished. It is broader and flatter than those described above. The nocks are very angular and have the appearance of   nocks . Some sinew has been laid on the back of the bow and lashed in place with a cord.

A simple bow with plant fiber bowstring is 70246 in the Field Museum of Natural History collection. Another bow (70240) is in process of manufacture, having been roughly shaped out of a limb of cedar (Libocedrus decurrens). It is from Yosemite valley.

81Powers, 352.
821907, 438, fig. 107.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management