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The Bow
Part 1 of 2

Ishi called the bow man'i. He made bows of many woods while under observation, but upon an expedition into his country three years after his capture he showed us the tree from which the best bows were made. It was the mountain juniper. He made a stave from one of these trees on the spot, though it was later ruined.

He described another tree from which his tribe made bows, apparently the incense cedar. This, he said, was chopped down by the one man in his tribe who owned an iron axe, and split with wedges of deer horn into proper-sized staves. To obtain the wood for his bow he broke a limb from the tree, which seems to have been the custom before the days of axes.

The Indian with the axe seems to have been the bow maker of the vicinity. He also owned a long knife, and was known as Chanoyahi, that is, Atsugewi or Hat Creek Indian. Of his prowess with the bow, Ishi told us many tales.

Juniper wood Ishi called nogu'i. Yew wood he did not seem to have used, though he knew of it and said that other tribes used it. His name for this was hulogos'i. He knew that its leaves were poisonous to eat.

While with us he used eucalyptus, tanbark oak, red cedar (tiyun'i), hickory, ash, juniper, and yew for his bows. All of these were of the same general shape and size, and all were backed with sinew. Yew, of course, produced the best weapon. His standard of measurement for a good bow was to hold a stave diagonally across his chest with one end in his right hand at the hip, and the left arm extended straight out at an angle of 45 degrees from the horizontal. The distance between these points was the proper length for a bow. This measured in his own case four feet and two inches. The width of the bow at the middle of each limb was three or four fingers, according to whether a light hunting bow or a powerful war bow was wanted.

The shape of his bow was a short, flat stave, with limbs wider at their center than at the handle, sometimes recurved at their outer extremity, tapering gracefully to small short nocks at the ends.

His wood, after being split or partially blocked out from a limb, was laid in a horizontal position in a warm, sheltered place. Here it seasoned. But as to what time of year to cut it, or how long to season it, Ishi seemed to have no set opinions.

The process of shaping the bow was that of scraping with flint or obsidian. With infinite patience and care he reduced the wood to the proper dimensions. In the finishing work he used sandstone. The measurements of two of his best bows are as follows:
Number 1—19590. Length, 44 inches. Diameters, at handle, 5/8 by 1 1/2 inches; at midlimb, 9/16 by 1 7/8 inches; at nock, 5/16 by 3/4 inches. Pulls 40 pounds.
Bow in possession of author. Shown in use in plate 31. Length. 54 1/2 inches. Diameters, at handle, 3/4 by 15/8; at midlimb, 1/2 by 1 3/4; at nock, 1/4 by 1/2 inches. Pulls 45 pounds.

He seemed to have had no great respect, as the English do, for the white sap wood of yew or cedar. Although he placed this at the back of his bow, he did not hesitate to cut through its grain to attain a symmetrical form, and just as often he would scrape most of it away, leaving only a thin stratum of white at each edge. At the handle a cross section of the bow was oval, while a section through the mid-limb was much flatter.

In some of his bows the last six inches of the limbs were recurved. This was accomplished by holding the back of the bow, at this point, on a hot rock while pressure was applied at the ends, bending the wood over the stone, shifting the bow back and forth, until the requisite curve had been obtained. Then, while the wood cooled, Ishi held it pressed against his knee, which was protected by a pad of buckskin.

Ishi's Short Bow