The Archery Library
Old Archery Books, Articles and Prints
Home > Articles > Yahi Archery > Manufacture of Arrow-points
Manufacture of Arrow-Points

For making arrowheads, bone and obsidian and flint were used by the Yahi. Flint Ishi designated as pana k'aina and seemed to like it because of its varied colors. But hahka or obsidian was in commoner use, and among the Yahi it served even as money. Boulders of obsidian were traded from tribe to tribe throughout his country. They probably came by way of the Hat Creek Indians from Shasta County and other districts where this volcanic glass was prevalent.

A boulder of obsidian was shattered by throwing another rock on it. The chunks thus obtained were broken into smaller size by holding a short segment of deer horn or piece of bone against a projecting surface, and smartly striking it a glancing blow with a stone. The resulting flakes of obsidian best suited for arrowheads were roughly three inches long, an inch and a half wide and half an inch thick. Selecting one of these, according to its shape and grain, he began the flaking process.

Protecting the palm of his left hand by means of a piece of buck-skin, and resting the left elbow on the left knee, he held the obsidian tightly against the palm by folding his fingers over it. The flaker was a piece of deer horn bound to a stick about a foot long. Holding this instrument securely in his right hand, the stick resting beneath the forearm for leverage, he pressed the point of the horn against the obsidian edge with vigor, and fractured or flaked off a small bit. By reversing the position of the obsidian in his hand and attacking the opposite edge with the flaking tool, repeating in a painstaking way this manoeuver after several flakings, he slowly fashioned his arrow point, making long deep chips or light finishing flakes, as the condition required. He used deer horn for the heavier work, but while with us he chiefly employed a soft iron rod three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter and eight inches long, having a handle or padding of cloth bound about it for a distance of six inches. The tool must be a substance that will dent slightly and thus engage the sharp edge of obsidian. Tempered steel utterly fails to serve this purpose. His flaking tools were shaped something like a screw driver, only rounded instead of square at the point. These he filed quite sharp. When the obsidian had assumed the desired triangular shape, he exchanged his buckskin pad for a sort of thumb-piece of the same material. Holding the arrow point firmly on this with the left index finger, he selected a small flaking tool about the side of a shoemaker's awl, made of a wire nail driven into a wooden handle, and fashioned the notches near the base of the arrowhead by pressing the point of the flaking tool against the ball of the thumb.

To make a head of this type required about half an hour. He made them in all sizes and shapes. Large spike-like heads were for gift arrows and war. Medium size heads, perhaps 1 1/2 inches long, 3/4 inch wide, and 1/4 inch thick, were for ordinary deer shooting, while small, flat oval heads were for shooting bear.

Apparently it was Yahi custom to do most of the making of bows and arrows away from the camp, in secluded spots particularly favorable to this employment. At least this was true of the making of arrowheads; partially so, no doubt, because of the danger entailed, and partially because it was strictly a man's job.

Ishi said that the men congregated in a circle, in a warm sunny place, painted their faces with black mud to keep the flying flakes out of their eyes, and maintained silence—either for ceremonial purposes or to avoid getting pieces of flint or glass in the mouth. Among their theories of disease, the one which they most usually invoked was the supposed presence of bits of obsidian or spines of cactus and similar sharp objects in the system. The medicine man gave support to this theory, moreover, by the "magical" extraction of such objects from his patients, by means of sucking the painful spot.

If by chance a bit of glass flew in the eye while flaking arrowheads, Ishi would pull down his lower eyelid with the left forefinger, being careful not to blink or rub the lid. Then he bent over, looking at the ground, and gave himself a tremendous thump on the crown of the head with the right hand. This was supposed to dislodge the foreign body from the eye.

After much close work he frequently suffered from eyestrain headache. His distant vision was excellent, but like many Indians he was astigmatic. He also complained of fatigue and cramp in his hands after prolonged flaking.

The arrowheads were first set in the shaft by heating pine resin, and applying it to the notched end, then moulding it about the base of the obsidian point. When firm, the point was further secured by binding it with sinew, back and forth, about the tangs and around the shaft. Three wraps were made about each notch, and the tendon was wound about the arrow for the distance of half an inch immediately below the arrowhead. After drying, this secured the head very firmly and was quite smooth. A little polishing with sandstone gave a fine finish to the binding.

These heads frequently were kept in a little bag of skin, and not attached to the arrow till a few hours before the expected hunt. Extra heads were kept in readiness to substitute for those broken during use. Large oval blades were bound on short handles and used as knives. Still larger blades of the same type, on a long handle, were used as spears.

After some experience in shooting at targets, Ishi devised a substitute for the regular target arrow pile, or head. He made blunt points from thin brass tubing or steel umbrella sticks, cut into one inch lengths. He filed these with deep transverse notches across one end and pounded this portion into a blunt conical shape. These heads he set on his shafts with glue.