Robin Hood and Native Americans

Avalon has recently asked me to contribute something for ‘Native American Month,’ and as she is a huge fan of Robin Hood, it rather surprisingly was not too difficult for me to find something that connects the two. In the still from the film ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) shown above, Errol Flynn can be seen at his best as the iconic outlaw of Sherwood Forest aiming his longbow. But unfortunately he is using a mid-20th Century long American flatbow, instead of a true English longbow that a medieval archer would have used. He also carries his arrows on his back, like many Native American cultures. Mid 14th century illustrations show that English longbowmen carried bundles of arrows in their belts.

A flatbow is a bow with non-recurved, flat, relatively wide limbs that are approximately rectangular in cross-section. Because the limbs are relatively wide, flatbows will usually narrow and become deeper at the handle, with a rounded, non-bending, handle for easier grip. This design differs from that of an English longbow, which has rounded limbs that are circular or D shaped in cross-section, and is usually widest at the handle.

It was flatbows that were used by indigenous peoples of North America, from pre-Columbian times; tribes such as the Hupa, Karok, and Wampanoag, prehistoric ancient Europeans, some Inuit tribes, Finno-Ugric nations and a number of other pre-gunpowder societies for hunting and warfare because, unlike longbows, flatbows can be made from a wide variety of timbers.

The archers of the Americas were masters of the bow long before European cultures began to spread across the continents. In the open plains strong bows of great range were used and in the woodlands where stealth and cunning was needed, lighter bows were used. 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.

The smaller bows made by Native Americans in the west explains that the reason they are short is because they fought and hunted from horseback. However, this explanation does not account for the bows of California, New Mexico, Arizona, the mountainous areas of Colorado, or the desert areas of Nevada or Utah where buffalo hunting from horseback was not common.

The bows made and used by Native Americans were what is commonly called a "self" or "true" bow. This is a bow made from a single piece of wood that is durable and flexible enough to be bent in the proper shape. The string itself was made from the very animals that the Native Americans were hunting. Animal sinew, a fibrous material inside the animal carcass was removed, stretched and twisted into string. This string was highly pliable and retained an enormous amount of tension, perfect for launching an arrow. The arrows themselves were made of small shafts of wood with feathers on the ends to guide the arrow. The head of the arrows were made of stone, most commonly flint. The Native Americans became proficient in both the wooden bow and the composite. The bow became such an important tool that it was regarded as a symbol of magic, power, or prowess.

Hopi Indians used arrows coated with snake venom. Arrow tips were made from flaked slivers of stone (e.g., flint or obsidian), bone or antler and were inserted into shafts made from willow wood. The arrows fit into an open-ended quiver that was worn on the back; this proximity facilitated rapid firing at targets. To guard against these projectiles in battle, warriors used tough bison hides to make their shields impenetrable to arrows.

The bow - in Europe, was a weapon of war. It was used by one group of men against another. Because yew, the wood of choice for English longbows, is light, resilient, and has exceptional compressive strength, the rounded design can be used to produce a smooth shooting, efficient, powerful bow. Other woods were also used, probably for compulsory practice purposes, among them wych-elm, ash and hazel, but to this day the slow-grown mountain yew is the supreme wood for the longbow of traditional English pattern. Longbows made of yew were easier to construct by the hundreds and did not require wide staves.

The legendary last member of the Yahi Indian tribe, known as Ishi, came out of hiding in California in 1911. He lived for the last five years of his life at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California where he was clothed and fed. Sadly Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916, but before he passed away, he willingly taught his doctor, Saxton Pope, about his culture. From his association with Ishi, Pope concluded that Ishi’s bow and arrow making was the best by far of any examples of Indian bowmaking to be found in American museums.

Pope explained that Ishi would split a limb from a tree and use the outer part of the wood including the sap wood, as does the longbowmaker. He reduced it by scraping and rubbing on sandstone, and made the tips by bending the wood backwards over a heated stone. It was then bound to a wooden ‘former’ and left to season in a dark dry place. After seasoning, he backed the bow with sinew from the leg tendons of deer, held on with glue made from boiled salmon skins. The tendons were chewed, to separate the fibres and made them soft, and then glued to the roughened back of the bow. During the process of drying he bound the sinew tightly to the bow with long thin straps of willow bark. After several days he removed this bandage and smoothed off the edges of the dry sinew, sized the surface with more glue and rubbed everything smooth with sandstone. Then he bound the handgrip for a space of 10.2 cm with a narrow buckskin thong.............the bowstring he made from the finest tendons from the deer shank, again chewed and twisted into a chord, with a loop at one end and a thong for tying at the other.

According to Ishi, a bow left strung or standing in an upright position gets tired and sweats. When not in use it should be left lying down; no one should step over it; no child should handle it, and no woman should touch it. This brings bad luck and makes it shoot crooked. To expunge such an influence it is necessary to wash the bow in sand and water.

Pope also described how Ishi, by placing one end of his bow at the corner of his open mouth, and tapping the string with an arrow, the Yana could make sweet music. To this accompaniment Ishi sang a folk song telling of a great warrior whose bow was so strong that, dipping his arrow first in fire, then in the ocean, he shot at the sun. As swift as the wind, his arrows flew straight in the round open door of the sun and put out its light. Darkness fell upon the earth and men shivered with cold. To prevent themselves from freezing they grew feathers, and thus our brothers the birds were born.


Clement Glen said...

"Robin Hood and Native Americans"

Native American Month

Longbows and Archery

Avalon said...

Thanks for honoring our heritage month.

Anonymous said...


David of Minnesota said...

The info about the care of the bow is all true. I have had many bows and many more arrows and can attest to this info