Ive always been fascinated by Cherokee blowguns. Sometimes, Ive
had the opportunity to try out my blowgun skills when visiting Cherokee
friends. Ive often thought about making a blowgun of my own, but
Ive never known how to do so. Now — low and behold —
Ive found an Internet site that describes how to do so in considerable
detail. More on that later. First, some background regarding Cherokee
Blowguns were a specialty of the Indians of southeastern North America
like the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Catawba, Seminole and Cherokee tribes.
The best general account of those tribes is contained in Charles Hudsons
The Southeastern Indians (University of Tennessee Press, 1976). Dr.
Hudson has this to say about their use of blowguns:
As with all hunting people with simple technology, the main
hunting strategy of the Southeastern Indians was not so much concerned
with skillfully hitting the animal from a great distance as it was in
getting so close to the animal that they could not miss ... Boys and
young men used blowguns to kill squirrels and birds and other small
game. The blowgun was made of a hollowed piece of cane cut to a length
of seven to nine feet. The darts they used were about about 10 to 22
inches long and were round in cross section. They were made of hard
wood and had several inches of thistledown or animal hair tied to one
end to form an air seal in the blowgun. The Cherokees were accurate
with the blowgun up to 40 or 60 feet. Their darts had sufficient velocity
to penetrate the bodies of birds, but with larger game they shot for
the eyes, and reportedly with good success. We have no evidence that
they used any kind of poison on this darts.
I am in agreement with Dr. Hudson about their not using dart poisons.
We know that they doped fish with buckeye nuts (which contain aesculin)
and the rootstock of Devils shoestring (a vetch that contains
rotenone), but there is absolutely no evidence that they utilized dart
poisons. Accordingly, I was dumbfounded when I read on a Cherokee
Language and Cultural Preservation website (www.angelfire.com/ks2/tsalagilanguage/weapons.html)
that they would get a poisonous snake to bite into a piece of
spoiled meat and dip the dart into the poisoned meat.
I would like to see the documentation for that assertion.
Arlene Fradkin adds additional information regarding the darts in Cherokee
Folk Zoology (N.Y.: Garland Publishing Co., 1990):
These darts were 9- to 22-inch slivers of hickory, bush clover,
honey locust, red mulberry or white oak and were rounded in cross section,
with the piston, or plunger, wrapped in thistledown and the other end
John Parris once interviewed for The Ashevile Citizen-Times (May 20,
1988, pp. 1A and 10A) the then 83-year-old Hayes Lossiah, a noted Cherokee
blowgun artist who resided in the Wolftown community on the Qualla Boundary.
Lossiah recalled a blowgun hunt he made when he was 12 years old:
One time I remember back then, he said, I took
five darts and went into the woods to hunt squirrels. I was standing
beside a tree and I saw a squirrel go into a hole in another tree. I
stood there just as quiet as I could be. Didnt move. Just kept
my eyes on that hole in the tree.
Well, after a while that squirrel stuck his head out of
the hole. Just stuck his head out and seemed to be listening. I raised
my blowgun to my mouth and took aim and give a good puff and shot that
squirrel right in the throat. He fell out of the tree.
When youre hunting small game, such as squirrels and
rabbits and birds, he said, you try to get as close as you
can. Never more than 40 feet away. You can kill at that distance. And
farther, it dont have as much power. And you cant be as
If you miss hitting a squirrel or rabbit on your first dart,
he said, you can get off another shot without scaring off the
game. A dart dont make noise, either in flight when it hits the
ground. Not like a shotgun or rifle. No noise.
So, have I piqued your interest? Maybe youd like to try your hand
at making one, too? We could have a blowgun contest. Heres how,
according to Benjamin Pressley, author of Primitive Hunting Weaponry:
Survival Weapons of Today. (www.perigee.net/~benjamin/blowgun.htm):
The blowgun is a weapon that can be produced in the survival
situation and is used for hunting small game, such as squirrels. It
can be made from a pithy centered branch that is split and hollowed
out, such as Sumac, like the Houma did, or it is most easily made from
a length of River Cane, like the Cherokee. You can also use Bamboo.
A good length is 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter and 4 to 8 feet long.
The blank should first be heat straightened. This is accomplished
as follows: Look down the length of the piece you wish to straighten.
Observe the crooked places. Hold the crooked area over a bed of coals,
turning it and heating it evenly. Bend it as straight as possible and
hold it till it cools and it should remain straight. Do two or three
joints at a time, let cool, then come back and do two or three of the
sections in between the joints and let them cool, or, do all the joints
then all the sections. If you dont do it this way, a little at
a time, you will find that you are working against yourself and having
to restraighten the same areas over and over again.
Next, the interior wall joints must be removed. In the survival
situation this is best accomplished by splitting the blank into two
equal halves down the length of it and using stone flakes or grinding
stones to grind them away smoothly. The two halves should then be glued
back together with hide glue or pitch glue and bound with buckskin,
rawhide or cordage. If you make one at home, you may wish to use a heated
steel rod to burn out the sections, instead of splitting the cane and
sanding the interior smoothly.
Because of the way the plants above grow, one end will be a slightly
larger diameter than the other. The dart is placed in the larger end
and exits the smaller end. This has a choke effect on the
dart causing its fletchings to really lay down and a lot of force is
built up for the fastest exit possible.
The darts are made by using any lightweight, small diameter wood.
Splits of River Cane or Bamboo work well. At home, using Bamboo skewers
that you can purchase at your grocer works very well ... I prefer split,
round diameter, straight grained hardwood. I like Locust best. Darts
should be sharpened on one end and about 10 inches in length. Grind
the point, rather than whittling it. It makes for a stronger, longer
Fletchings should cover about 4 inches of the butt end and can
be made from rabbit fur, cotton, thistle down, small bird feathers and
some other plant downs. When choosing fletching material, keep in mind:
a) The material must be just light enough to give drag to the dart to
stabilize it but not outweigh the rest of the dart; and, b) It must
also be light and fluffy enough to fill the chamber of your blowgun
as air is pushed through from your breath, causing it to be propelled
out and yet be able to lay down aerodynamically when exiting the blowgun.
Small bird feathers work well, you must use fluffs, though,
or very tiny feathers, not stiff spined feathers. I really like small
turkey leg feathers. Tiny feathers must be tied in, layering one row
on another as described with thistle down below.
Which brings us to Thistle down. Thistle down is the material
of choice. Get a bulb that is dried but not opened or catch them before
they open and tie them shut and allow them to dry till youre ready
to use them. Native Americans would split a piece of cane and clamp
bulbs between the two halves tied together until they were ready to
use it. Remove the down carefully, keeping it flat and in one line.
Carefully remove the seeds, brown chaff and rough up and soften the
hard areas that held the seed, while keeping tightly clamped between
your thumb and forefinger. Holding a length of cordage in your mouth,
with the other end secured in a notch in the butt end of the shaft of
the dart you are rolling, so one hand holds the dart shaft, while the
other holds the thistle down. Secure the fletching material by wrapping
it with the cordage catching just enough of an edge to hold it and allow
it to fluff out as you move down the entire fletching area, feeding
the down into the string as you go and tie off at the end.
The dart should slide in the blowgun easily but snug. It is placed
in the end you will blow, flush, point first. The blowgun is held with
both hands with the elbows resting on the chest and together. The dart
is then blown with a sudden burst of air after aiming at the target.
(George Ellison is a writer who lives in Bryson City. He wrote the
biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics:
Horace Kepharts Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooneys
History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Readers can contact
him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 287713, or at email@example.com