North American Sioux Indian Archery

by Robert E. Kaiser, M.A.

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 24, 1981.
Please read the copyright notice!

In the Museum of Westward Expansion, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, under the Gateway-To-The-West Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, there is an excellent example of Sioux Indian archery, combining both original artifacts and authentic reproductions into one display. The Sioux Nation was one of the many native groups who inhabited the Great Plains of North America. The bow and arrows are reproductions, accurate in every detail; while the quiver and bow case are authentic, from the Ogalala, the largest of the seven tribes which formed the Nation. Together, the set is representative of Sioux Indian archery, circa 1870. Careful examination of these artifacts also reveals much about the culture and environment which determined their construction and use, Plate l.

Plate 1: The complete set of Sioux archery equipment
Plate 1: The complete set of Sioux archery equipment

A nomadic people, the Sioux of the 1800's existed by hunting food and gathering materials off the land, living in close harmony with their environment. They inhabited a region covering the States of Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska South Dakota and Wyoming, with the Ogalala living in the South-west. Various animals which grazed the terrain provided the Indian with his food, clothing, tools, and transportation. For example, the buffalo provided not only meat but hides for lodgings (tepees) and clothing The animal's bones were used for scrapers, needles, and arrowheads. glue was made from the hoofs. Even the sinews were used for binding and wrapping. Interaction between the native and the environment was so dynamic that the tribe was often forced to divide into groups, whose size was dependent upon the availability of game in that area.

Originally sedentary farmers in the South- eastern States of South Carolina an Georgia, the introduction of the horse into North America by the Spanish radically changed their culture. In the early 1700s, the Sioux adopted the horse as their primary means of transportation, abandoned the farmer's life and began a gradual migration to the Plains, becoming predators. A short stout bow easily shot from horseback, became a necessity.

Although both self and compound bows were used equally by all Sioux Tribes, the bow in this exhibit, an accurate replica, is a compound, 43 1/2 inches overall length. Made from a single wooden stave, it is roughly symmetrical, the upper limb having a length of 21 1/2 inches and a circumference at mid-point of 2 1/2 inches. The lower limb is 22 inches long with a 2 1/2 inch circumference at mid-point also. Cut in a 'D' shape, the bow utilises both centre and sapwood.

Plate 2: The bow viewed from the belly
Plate 2: The bow viewed from the belly

Plates 1 and 2. Rough cuts and gouges on the belly indicate that splitting of the wood was done with a stone or bone tool, not metal. Plate 2. The back is longitudinally reinforced with sinew to give it a stiffer draw weight. Elk was widely used for this purpose. The reinforcing is wrapped in five evenly spaced places around the periphery of the stave from top to bottom by more sinew, and is fastened by hoof glue. Ash appears to be the wood used, though Osage Orange was also popular. Plate 3. The nocks are formed by a single deep notch at the end of each limb, reinforced by sinew. Plate 4. Bow strings, as is the case here, were generally made from woven sinew.

Plate 3: The bow viewed from the back.
Plate 3: The bow viewed from the back.
Plate 4: The sinew wrapped nock of the bow with sinew bowstring.
Plate 4: The sinew wrapped nock of the bow with sinew bowstring.

Draw weights varied, however, this type of weapon was strong enough to penetrate the tough hide of a buffalo at close range.

There are nine arrows in the quiver, all reproductions, belonging to this display. They are approximately 24 inches long and range in circumference from 3/16 inch to 3/8 inch. While the wood of the stele is unknown, the fletching is made from pinion feathers of the turkey, split in half down the quill. There are three feathers per arrow, roughly 7 inches in length, attached to the stele by animal glue and sinew. The nock feather has no distinguishing colour or shape. The extraordinary length of the fletching may seem odd, however, long feathers were needed to give short stele and heavy head stability in flight. Plate 5.

Plate 5: The reproduction arrows.
Plate 5: The reproduction arrows.

Located in the Museum vaults are nineteen authentic Ogalala arrows from the Battles of the Little Big Horn and the Rosebud (1876), between the Sioux and the U.S. Cavalry. All these arrows range in length between 23 and 25 inches. They have three fletchings per shaft, 6 to 8 inches long, made from the flight feathers of a hawk or turkey. The feathers, as on the replicas, are attached by hoof glue and sinew. Contrasting the display, these artifacts have fletchings dyed blue, green, and red. Ther are also dyed bands on the stele of many of the historical arrows with a similar colour scheme. Any available wood, even reeds, was used for the stele. A final difference between artifact and replica is in the existence of three shallow longitudinal grooves on the shafts of each on the authentic arrow. Three theories exist as to the purpose of grooving the stele; the cuts may be blood grooves, they might serve to pressurise the grain of the wood from three sides to prevent warping, or could symbolise lightning.

The shape and construction of the nock on both display and original arrows are very simple, comprised of a single deeply notched 'V' in the stele. Some of the arrows from the Little Big Horn and the Rosebud have a shaft slightly flared at the nock; a few of the nocks were reinforced by sinew. A deep nock insured that the missile would not slip from the string during the draw, despite the jarring movement of the horse under the archer.

The arrowheads are made both of stone and metal. Iron points were popular trade items, illustrating contact between Native Americans and whitemen on more than one level. Metal heads of the Ogalala arrows, easily mass produced, are of 1/16 inch flat iron, roughly cut in a triangular shape 2 to 3 inches long. The width at greatest girth is 1/2 to 1 inch. It is interesting to note that two of the arrows from the Battle of the Rosebud have nails for heads The American Indian was a very pragmatic person; if something worked, he used it. Stone heads were made from flint, meticulously chipped into shape with a bone tool. No matter what the head's material, it is attached to the stele by a single notch, glue, and sinew.

The most fascinating item of the display is the authentic quiver and bow case. Made from two separate pieces of hand leather, probably deer or antelope, they are laced together with hide strips and decorated with red felt, white, yellow, blue and brown trade beads, red dyed horse hair and small iron bells. The beads, bells, and felt are all trade items. Apparently the Indians also traded for iron sewing needles, since the beads are fastened to the leather by thin thread. Both quiver and case are constructed from a single piece of leather folded over once. These two separate pieces of leather are then joined at a common seam by leather thongs and decorated with red felt. A long shoulder strap is attached, permitting the mounted archer to conveniently carry his weapons across his back. The quiver measures 24 1/2 inches in length, with a width of 3 1/2 inches at the mouth tapering to l 3/4 inches at the bottom. The case is 36 inches long, 2 1/2 inches wide at the mouth, and 1 1/2 inches wide at the bottom. The length of the quiver and bow case insured that the weapons would be fully protected from the weather. Plate 1.

The bow case is decorated by symmetrical geometrical beadwork evenly spaced up and down its entire length, while the quiver has only three rows of symmetrical designs at each end. A decorative colour scheme of red, white, yellow, blue and brown is significant, especially the red, white and blue, which are the Sioux National Colours. This quiver and case was made by a woman, since only females decorated with geometric designs; mean created images of living things. Fine quality beadwork such as this was one way a woman could bring honour and recognition upon herself. Plate l.

The artifacts and replicas on display, typical not only of the Ogalala Tribe, but the entire Sioux Nation, tell much about the native culture and the environment which shaped them. The very materials the weapons are made from reveal the kind of animals they were used to hunt. Their construciion and decoration state the values of this nomadic predatory people.

Author's Note
An expression of gratitude is owed to Mr. Norman Messinger, Museum Superintendent, for his kind permission to examine and photograph this display, and to two of his assistants: Mr. Frank Joachimsthaler, Indian Cultural Specialist and Mr. Eric Underwood, Reference Librarian, for their help. Any questions concerning this display or Sioux Culture may be addressed to Mr. Joachimsthaler or Mr. Underwood at:
Administrative Offices, National Park Service,
Old Court House, 1 1 North 4th Street, St.
Louis, Missouri, 63102.
Object #19-3
Catalogue #525
Accession #840
Photography courtesy of Mrs. Nina Hutchinson of Pevely, Missouri.


Royal B. Hassrick. The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Thomas E. Mails. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains. Garden City, Doubleday, 1972.
Clark Wissler. North American Indians of the Plains. New York, American Museum of Natural History, 1912.