When I was a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico I had the opportunity to learn from Gerald Vizenor, as my professor he fostered my reading and writing and encouraged me to explore it as a necessary tool for survivance. In Post Indian Conversations Robert A. Lee's interview with Gerald Vizenor, Vizenor defines Survivance stating,
"Survivance, in my use of the world, means a native sense of presence, the motion of sovereignty and the will to resist dominance. Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victory. Survival is a response; survivance is a standpoint, a worldview and presence. Yes, there is a sense of dependency in the meaning of the word survival, a dependency on the cause of some action[…] My stories are bout survivance not victimry. So survivance is resistance and hermeneutics." (Lee and Vizenor 1999, 93 )
Some of the memorable advice Vizenor gave me were along the lines of, find a historical presence or experience and use it to fill in a contemporary absence, make it a story that conveys what you are trying to say and always be willing to go where everyone else is not willing to go. This has always been challenging to do, since I feel like my upbringing is tied very close to land and cultural practice, which provides much story, experiences and historical presence. However, for me personally I feel that much of my Indigenous land based practice is very private, my late Grandmother Mary Scribe always conveyed that their are some things too sacred to talk about publicly, so I keep many of my personal experiences with my land based practice very private and do my best not to boast about it publicly or plaster it onto social media. So in recent years I had to find stories and Indigenous presence that I can refer to publicly. This is one of those stories, a story about archery as a personal practice of resurgence, resistance, and survivance. I must also emphasis that I am in no way an expert archer or pretend to be one.
While doing my undergraduate degree I became close friends with a man who I now call my brother, Daryl Lucero from Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico. We became close friends and ultimately roommates for the majority of my time as an undergraduate. One day Daryl brought a recurve bow to our shared home, a contemporary recurve bow, which we decided to take out to the high desert and shoot. I fell in love with archery as a personal practice since then. Daryl’s people still revere and maintain the presence of the bow in their traditional and personal lives, which got me personally thinking about how my people, the Plains Cree’s lost touch with our personal practice of archery and realized that it was something I personally wanted to change in my own life. Traditionally, our archery was a main part of our personal lives, we were proficient in the use of the bow as a tool of hunting and warfare. Today, as a full time PhD Student I only ever shoot my bow when I feel the need to and am in no way proficient enough to call my self a bow hunter or even an archer. However, the admiration I have for shooting the bow is very deep and it is a source of relaxation and personal reflection. I practice archery with the knowledge that our ancestors knew their archery inside and out and that many indigenous peoples today still maintain their bow culture and cosmology, I always concentrated on the fact that indigenous archery is often based in accessible tools and is very practical and pragmatic and in all reality is still highly effective.
I became busy with school and decided to put out the prayer to make enough or at least save enough money to obtain a new recurve bow, which is a challenging thing to do as a PhD Student. This has lead me to realize how expensive current forms archery is, when it doesn't have to be. My brother Daryl and I are of the school of thought that informs us to not get too carried away with a dependency on contemporary technology and practices, if there is a solution or tool that is too convenient or requires extensive training and experience, step it down a notch to something more pragmatic. This basically means resorting to a Do -It-Yourself mentality, which is far more challenging then to simply higher someone or making hundred dollar purchases. It requires dedication to learning and figuring things out, initiating the process and along the way asking help from people who know their craft and are willing to help. I combined this personal philosophy with what Taiaiake Alfred stated in his book Peace, Power and Righteousness,
The larger process of regeneration, as with the outwardly focused process of decolonization, also begins with the self. It is a self- conscious kind of traditionalism that is the central process in the ‘reconstruction of traditional communities’ based on the original teachings and orienting values of Indigenous peoples (Alfred 1999, 81).
This bow has been my personal Indigenous Resurgence Project. More importantly, and has lead me on a personal journey to further unearth my peoples indigenous plains style archery.
This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Genoa, Italy. While I was there I was gifted a recreated practical Crow style bow. . An Italian Bow Maker and natural woodworker named Ivano Ciravegna made the bow. It was gifted to me in the region of Antola, Italy, which is how the bow got his name. I initially wanted to trade. However, he insisted on gifting, so I insist on sending him a pair of moccasins in return. I understand the irony of an Italian Bow Maker giving an Indigenous person a bow designed to Indigenous specifications. However, after seeing this bow I realized that Ivano is a natural craftsman who has been gifted with the mind, heart, and hands to understand and work with wood, which lead to the creation of Antola. This bow is amazing. I fell in love with this bow because, he was not made as a showpiece, Ivano stated that he does not sell his bows and rarely ever gives one away. Antola was made as a practical bow, a re-creation in the strictest of terms. In essence, he was created to be a weapon. Though Plains Style bows are short with short arrows, these traditional bows can reach up to 80-120 pounds in draw weight, which was the ideal for buffalo hunting while on horseback. I stress this because I feel that today too many of our peoples traditional tools are recreated as show pieces and serve no real function. They are symbolic pieces that are for display use only, which defeats the purpose of why they were made and created. I am also against the term "primitive" to refer to these styles of bows, it is highly offensive and our indigenous technology served their purpose for thousands of years and their utilitarian timeline surpasses many contemporary technologies. In addition to the display pieces, Bows are not toys, as stated by a Texas Ranger in the 1840s observing Comanches on the southern plains,
"I remember once, in a little scrimmage we had with the Indians on the head of the Leon. I saw one of them drive an arrow through a man at the distance of seventy-five or eighty paces, and into another, who was standing just behind him; and there they were, fastened together like a couple of Siamese twins. The man in front was killed instantly, but the one behind at length kicked loose from the traces and eventually got well, though he carries the head of the arrow in his breast to this day." (Duval 1870, 152)
Antola is not a child play thing and I feel that the plastic toy versions are not helping our young people achieve the level of understanding that our people had in terms of their archery. I am one of the little boys who went through many plastic bows with suction cups that tended to snap and break and then disappear, if someone were to do an archeological dig around my mom’s house they would surely find plastic fragments of these toys. In hindsight I realize that I were taught to make a bow or was handed a real practical Ash bow that was in no way a plaything and designed to take the life of small animals so I can feed my family, the development of my archery would be happening very early on in life. I can also see how that intention of creating a bow and showing children how to use it really be a important part of traditional parenting and practice, I noticed many traditional archers often refer to their first encounter with the practice through a parent or grandparent is often their foundation for maintaining the practice. Establishing efficiency at an earlier age in any indigenous practice is very important, If I were one day to have a son, I would love to hand him over a bow I made specifically for him. He would begin to understand much of the insights and awareness’s I am only now uncovering. What I am only now uncovering now as an adult at 28 years old, he will have access to at the age of 6. So naturally, when he is 28 years old he would have already surpassed my knowledge and know how.
Indigenous Resurgence as Practice
These styles of bows are not "primitive", they are still useful and in my opinion the most practical and technologically advanced tools when all you have at your disposal what creator has given you, your hands, a mind, and a beautiful land to live on. Anthropologists who refer to traditional indigenous archery in primitive terms may have not seen beyond dried up museum pieces or only seen feeble recreations, the bow in its natural element being used by a person whose second nature is to shoot multiple arrows in a short period of time is an image that many have not seen since we were using these bows daily on the plains. Also, no offence to those who purchase compound bows or contemporary bows, I am realizing that our traditional archery it is not the same as contemporary versions of archery and is highly unique. There is no doubt that archery has improved and become more streamlined, compound bows do much of the work for you and even contemporary constructed bows are pretty much maintenance free by traditional standardsI feel that in terms of this personal project the goal for now isn't to get my arrow into a Moose or Deer, although I can begin to see that becoming more of a probability for me. it also not about getting my arrows on target per-say, being that the arrows I attempt to make miss the target a lot or corkscrew into other directions. For now It is more about understanding and sitting in the paradigms that lead to the creation of the bow and this style of archery, these styles of practical bow emerged from fostered practical skills that our people were dependent on. For me, this journey is uncovering a lot more insights and awareness’s in simply interacting with the attempts to maintain this bow and make my own arrows, the insights and awareness’s have been far more epic in the last few months than I ever had in the years I have been shooting and hitting targets with my contemporary recurve. These awareness are also leading to insights into myself and the way we now life as people, this project has lead to deeper understandings in regards to indigenous contemporary struggles.
When I first shot Antola I was surprised, not at how he functioned or performed but how difficult and challenging he was to shoot. First shot was a flop; he bit me on the wrist with his bowstring. The second shot, the arrow bit the skin between my forefinger and thumb and I began to bleed. The third shot, the fingers of my draw hand hurt from drawing the bow back. Every shot missed the target and all romanticism of me tapping into my natural skill set of the innate indigenous archer went out the door. Standing there bleeding and looking at my cut hand, my instinctual thought was "This is impractical" and "its stupid and look like a idiot, and I don't like it". Basically I felt like it was ready to abandon the practice. Then after some thought and revisiting and talking with my self, I realized very quickly that this was made to the specifications of our people. It was hard at that moment to believe that bows like this sustained our ways of life. I began to practice further under the premise that I only shot this bow 3 times when a person my age 150 years ago would have shot thousands upon thousands of times. Based on the practices and the standards of my ancestors, I am still a baby in this practice and have to start from the beginning.
Antola is as short bow with short arrows, he can be accurate up to 30 feet while standing, and I can arch the shots to go further than that however that compromises velocity. Ever since that first experience with Antola my target grouping are getting better and closer and I understand better how he functions. Because Antola is a traditional bow and made of hand carved ash and sinew he is not covered in any form of polymer, he requires frequent attention. This requires me to have a constant relationship with him, which is frustrating at times because we no longer live in a time when carrying around a bow is practical and when I first had Antola the last thing on my mind at the end of full day of PhD workload is to check an maintain my bow, even making time to shoot and maintain my bow in the city is an ongoing challenge. However, Antola doesn't care about all that, if I don't make time for him he does what he does naturally he dries up and can warm if not set and strung properly. This requires daily checks when I wake up in the morning and sometimes before I go to bed at night, it currently has become a morning ritual for me. I Pick him up string him, draw him, and may string him to sit for the day. If he is dry I have to give him a coat of bear grease, if I notice his arches moving I will string him and hang him. All this attention is important, because he notices the weather more than I do. The draw weight of Antola on a good day in ideal conditions consisting of dry and warm weather in his natural state is 55#(55 pounds). Although it can go up if I let him sit in the sun and heat up, which causes the wood and sinew to become firmer. He doesn't shoot at capacity when it’s humid or rainy out because moisture softens the wood and sinew and on a damp rainy day I feel like his draw weight decreases.
This personal practice has opened up my mind to new insights and awarenesses relative to who I am and where I come from. The practice itself contextualize the past and provides a foundation to engage the future, it puts the world into perspective and allows for not only personal development, but intellectual and physical development as well. Arrows exist both metaphorically and literally.
Find Your Indigenous Practice: It can be anything you want it to be. However, I noticed that our youth have a natural draw to what it is they want to concentrate on or be good at. It can be art, hunting, horseback, thought, language, story, active lifestyles, fishing, sailing, running, prayer. Dedicate to something that is inherently indigenous and other doors will open and amazing insights will emerge. Many of which are decolonial insights and insights of resurgence.
Remove the Romance: Many often resort to the romanticization of our people’s traditional tools and their cultural practices with no real physical connection to them. Example: I often hear people say that if something were to go wrong in the world, an apocalyptic scenario per-say, they will simply go live like their ancestors and survive. I don't know why but some often refer to making a bow and arrow and hunting like their ancestors, I'm going to be honest and tell you that if these skills haven't been fostered and maintained, then you're not going to be able make that bow and arrows and probably going to die in the aforementioned apocalyptic scenario. There is an inherent danger in assuming that we can pick up this gifts and talents on a whim is highly problematic, dangerous and is a horrible insurance policy. The reality is hat these tools and skills have been created through trial and error over thousands of years in real world scenarios and in many cases are gifts from the creator and the cosmos, they need to be approached and talked to with reverence and intention. In all honesty, I realize that these tools and practices were not weekend hobbies to our people, these were daily livelihood practices. As indigenous plains people our society and culture depended on hunting, we lived to hunt, and hunted to live, which meant we were constantly on the look out for arrow shafts and bow wood and were probably constantly making arrows for ourselves and family. I feel that indigenous Resurgence requires this relentless natural work ethic.
Creating Social and Practical Infrastructure is Important: Ivano Ciravegna, Antola's maker is Italian. For me this speaks to the system and infrastructure Ivano has access to. He lives in a region where the wood craftsman is still revered and acceptable where a system of wood workers has existed for a very long time, fostered by social acceptance for the craft and an accessible infrastructure free from oppression. Much of Ivano's education and capabilities goes unhindered, freeing him up to be able to concentrate full time on his craft. An example of what I mean by infrastructure is that rural Italy still has access to butcher shops, so he had access to obtain the sinew required to make the bow. Which made it more accessible for Ivano to take on this bow-making project. This speaks to the need of not only the personal drive to be resurgent, but how much of our societal and practical infrastructure has been disrupted by colonialism and is still being disrupted by ongoing oppression, much of our tools and skills were dependent on community and the infrastructure it offered to be maintained. Today I am busy with a PhD Course load and maintaining other obligations and duties its difficult to make time to be out on the ;and and it has to be scheduled. The 9 to 5 work load often keeps us from our abilities to maintain our way of life. In terms of indigenous resurgence and even nationhood we naturally need to concentrate on the regeneration of Indigenous social and physical infrastructure that fosters the regeneration and maintenance of our social and political systems. An example of systems and infrastructure is I now have friends and family who know of my personal project and are supporting it in unique ways, one of which is my brother-in-law who now saves all feathers he finds while he is hunting for me to use as fletching.
Requires Constant Work Ethic and Intention: In the words of American Artist Chuck Close "Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get it done." Step out of your comfort zones and learn as you go. You will waste too much time waiting for inspiration or for someone to roll out a red carpet for you. What I learned from Antola is that doing it in the way of our ancestors isn't that easy, it requires constant practice and effort to establish the muscle memory.
Traditional Knowledge is the Foundation: We can easily say that we’ve never seen it therefore its impossible and unfathomable to bring down a buffalo with a bow. However, our stories and historical evidence proves it is possible. Children were capable of shooting flying birds with their arrows, and hunters were capable of bringing down buffalo, moose, and elk. They were capable of shooting multiple arrows in the time it took to shoot and reload rifles. Buffalo chasers with a Buffalo Horn bow would be able to shoot through a running buffalo. If I didn't know the stories of the bow and bow making, combined with historical research and testimony these feats would be next to be borderline fiction in my contemporary eyes. I realize this is also the reality of other forms of Indigenous ways of life and governance, if I didn't hear some stories of how our Indigenous governance functioned and how we operated as indigenous people, the concepts and frameworks would be next to unbelievable in contemporary eyes. Many of our people lost touch with the knowledge system and oral histories, therefore many of our abilities are unbelievable in their contemporary eyes. We need to maintain oral history and perspectives that also convey the practicality of our ways of life. Otherwise, some will disregard our tried, tested and true experiences for something less considerate. In terms of my PhD work and governance perspective some say indigenous governance and nationhood is impossible an unfathomable. However, our stories and historical evidence proves it is possible.
An Indigenous Resurgence Project opens you up to Other Projects: There is no shortage of work, if you don't have an indigenous project or resurgence goal then you're not stepping out of your comfort zone. Antola is still not in his natural element and under his natural intended use. I am not using him to his capacity. This is because his style was intended to be used on horseback, shooting on a running horse will increase velocity and the distance of arrow. On horseback Antola will be able to function in his natural element to his full capacity. So now my goal is to work on my horsemanship, which requires a horse and set up to maintain one. I also am still in the process of learning to make my own arrows, which is a skill in itself. This has helped me realize that resurgence and even the maintain of our ways of life are not a destination but an ongoing process, the ability to uncover and unearth processes and perspectives on our ways of life is important and can be passed on to those who want to learn. Opening the door often leads to other multiple doors that require opening and investigation.
Alfred, Taiaiake. Peace, Power Righteousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Lee, Robert. Vizenor, Gerald. Postindian Conversations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Duval, C. John. The Adventures of Bigfoot Wallace. Austin: The Steck Co, 1947.