Blowguns

Cherokee Blowgun

Most people associate Indians with the bow and arrow, and in fact these were the principal weapons used by men for hunting and warfare. However, the Cherokee and other southeastern woodland Indian tribes also made extensive use of blowguns.

Unlike the bow and arrow, which was used for larger game, the blowgun could be used to effectively kill birds and small mammals. It was a boy’s first weapon, and the skill and stealth required to effectively hunt with a blowgun proved essential to his later use of bow and arrow.

At the Cherokee Heritage Center, we show visitors how to use a blowgun and give you a chance to test your skills with this ancient weapon. Many people are curious about the manufacture of blowguns. We sat down with Chris Van Buskirk, a Cherokee who worked in the village and got him to explain the process to us. First, you select green river cane, and pick a piece that’s 6-8 feet long. River cane grows naturally in the southeastern U.S., and so was a natural choice for making a blowgun. The problem with the cane is that it is a jointed plant, and the joints that connect each section are solid. So the first task is to remove the solid joints inside the cane.

This is done by taking a small ember from the fire and dropping it down into the cane. You have to be careful not to let it burn too long or it will burn out the side of the cane. After just the right amount of time, you then take a smaller stick and push the ember down to the next joint. Repeat the process until the ember has burned through all the joints in the cane.

Next, take a small stick that has an arrowhead attached to it, and grind and scrape each joint so that it’s perfectly round on the inside. After smoothing out the joints in this manner, take a smaller green piece of river cane and rub it on the inside of the blowgun. The green cane has natural oils that leach out and are absorbed by the blowgun. The oil lubricates the inside of the cane after having been dried out by the fire, and makes the inside completely smooth.

Since river cane never grows perfectly straight, the next task is to straighten the blowgun. Place it over the fire where it is bent, and the oil in the cane will heat up, making the blowgun flexible. You have to be careful, of course, not to burn the blowgun. Once the cane has gotten flexible, you hold it in the desired position until it’s straight. It takes seven to ten days to sun-dry the blowgun.

Next, you’ll need darts to shoot through the blowgun. The shaft can be made of any hardwood, and historically they were as long as 18-20 inches. You just whittle down the dart to the desired length and thickness. Making the fletching for the rear of the shaft is a bit more complex.

It’s made with Scottish thistle, which, like the river cane, grows locally. You pick it in the late summer, August being the best month. You want to pick the thistle after it has bloomed, opened up, and then re-closed. After picking as many flowers as you can, they need to be stacked and the pressed between two pieces of wood to keep the thistle flower from breaking open and dispersing the fluff.

Once the thistle is dried, you pick off the purple flower casing and keep the white down of the thistle. You pinch the entire bundle of fluff between your fingers, brush off the seeds, and tie a piece of sinew or string to the end of the shaft, hold the string in your mouth, and then roll the shaft into the down so that it naturally builds around the shaft into a large, round stabilizer for the dart. Then you tie the sinew to keep the thistle mounted on the shaft.

Blowgun darts were never poisoned because the Cherokee were hunting small game and they thought the poison would contaminate the meat. The longer the blowgun, the more accurate it is. The range of the blowgun is about 60 feet, but in practice you want to get as close as you can. Average guns were anywhere from six to eight feet long.

For more information about the Ancient Village and related programs, please contact:
e-mail info@cherokeeheritage.org
Phone 918 456-6007 or 888-999-6007