Bois d’arc and Cherokee bow making
1/14/2010 7:15:03 AM
 
Cherokee National
Treasure Richard Shade tests his long bow that he made from bois d’arc wood. (Photo
by Shawna Cain)
Cherokee National Treasure Richard Shade tests his long bow that he made from bois d’arc wood. (Photo by Shawna Cain)
By Shawna Cain Cherokee National Treasure Winter is important to Cherokee bow makers. This is the season preferred to cut the hard woods used in making bows, ball sticks, fence posts, gigs and tool handles, as well as other durable wooden items. Richard Shade, a Cherokee National Treasure, said winter is when he prefers to cut bow wood for the year. “After the first hard freeze is when you should cut your wood because this is when most of the sap from the tree moves underground and into the roots. But, you also have to go by the moon phases when cutting your wood for bows.” Most Cherokees who specialize in making traditional bows and ball sticks agree that the short period between December and February is the ideal time to cut hard woods for carving such as bois d’arc, black locust, hickory and mulberry. Shade, from Lost City in Cherokee County, prefers bois d’arc and black locust when making traditional Cherokee long bows due to the strength and durability these woods afford. However, Shade also stresses the importance of moon phases when collecting these woods for making bows. “I know that I will be cutting wood pretty soon now that we have had a good freeze. But before I go to cut, I have to check the phase of the moon. The time to go is about a week before the new moon because this is when there is the least sap in the tree and the grain of the wood is most dense.” Shade said as a child he watched his grandfather and other “old Cherokee men” make bows, mostly out of bois d’arc, hickory, black locust and mulberry. Already experienced with a compound bow, Shade decided in his mid-20s that he wanted to make Cherokee long bows like his grandfather. “After I made my first bow, I put down the compound bow and switched real quick to the long bow.” Since that time, Shade has become known as a skilled Cherokee bow maker who now only hunts with bows he has made from bois d’arc and black locust. “I believe that Cherokees have always used black locust because it was plentiful in the East, but after we came to Oklahoma I think that bois d’arc was used more because it was easier to find and was good for bow making.” Bois d’arc is well known for its value in bow making but also has valued medicinal properties. The heartwood of the tree has been utilized as an antifungal agent and a nontoxic antibiotic also useful as a food preservative. Many Cherokees also attest to the potency of the bois d’arc fruit as a bug and rodent repellant. One Cherokee elder from Sequoyah County said, “You just throw some of the horse apples around the foundation or under the house to get rid of cockroaches, crickets and spiders.” A deciduous tree of the mulberry family, bois d’arc was named by French explorers who were attacked by Indians using bows of bois d’arc. So impressed with bois d’arc, it was the first tree sent overseas by early explorers to be transplanted in the Old World. A little-known fact about bois d’arc is its small “natural” habitat range. Before the 1700s Native Americans living in the Red River drainage of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas controlled the only bois d’arc habitat in the world, a precious trade commodity among Southeastern and Plains Indians. Today bois d’arc is considered one of the “healthiest tree species” and is actively grown in 48 states in North America and transplanted around the globe.
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