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Mountain Voices • 10/24/01

Hunting by more natural methods

By George Ellison

I’ve always been fascinated by Cherokee blowguns. Sometimes, I’ve had the opportunity to try out my blowgun skills when visiting Cherokee friends. I’ve often thought about making a blowgun of my own, but I’ve never known how to do so. Now — low and behold — I’ve found an Internet site that describes how to do so in considerable detail. More on that later. First, some background regarding Cherokee blowguns.

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 Hudson’s 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 Devil’s 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 ( 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 sharply pointed.”

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. Didn’t 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 you’re 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 don’t have as much power. And you can’t be as accurate.’

“‘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 don’t 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 you’d like to try your hand at making one, too? We could have a blowgun contest. Here’s how, according to Benjamin Pressley, author of Primitive Hunting Weaponry: Survival Weapons of Today. (

“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 don’t 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 lasting tip.

“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 you’re 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 Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 287713, or at


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