Handling bows and arrows from the back of a horse, while galloping across the plains at up to fifty kilometres per hour, trying to avoid prairie dog holes and other obstacles, directing the animal with the legs only, and aiming for a hand-sized target area on the side of a half-tonne bison is not for the faint of heart. Yet, Aboriginal hunters of the plains accomplished this feat routinely.
Indigenous archery is believed to have appeared on the Alberta plains around AD 250, and possibly earlier in other regions, such as the Great Lakes or the High Arctic.
Archery bows were made with raw materials available in each region. In the woodlands around the Great Lakes, Algonquian, and Iroquoian peoples crafted long bows from hardwoods such as hickory, black locust, ash, elm, and ironwood. They were often very large — almost as tall as the person using them.
Subarctic peoples, such as the Swampy Cree on the west coast of James Bay and Hudson Bay, made similar longbows, albeit from different species of wood, since only softwoods like birch and conifers like black spruce and tamarack were available for bow making.
In the Great Plains region, short bows were used. To overcome the difficulty of making bows from marginal materials, bow makers on the plains employed an ingenious technique known as sinew-backing. Several layers of the long fibres from bison, elk, or deer tendons were glued to the entire outside of a bow, where most of the tensile stress occurs when the bow is drawn. This outer layer would then take on the tension strain, instead of the underlying wood. Thus, bow makers could use relatively short pieces of wood of marginal quality to craft very powerful and reliable weapons.
With the beginning of the fur trade, Aboriginal people gained access to European firearms. In some regions, these weapons eventually replaced the bow and arrow as the principal distance weapon, while in other areas archery was retained side by side with guns.
This condensed version of an article by Indigenous history expert Roland Bohr appeared in the October-November 2016 issue of Canada’s History magazine. To read the full article, subscribe today.