Originally published in March 2015
Graham Richard —
On a glassy day in 1815, Haida hunters paddle to a nearby kelp bed. In their canoes, they chase ḵuu sea otters that dart, dodge, and dive through the water. The hunters trace the trails of bubbles left behind them as the ḵuu dive and swim away from the canoes. Soon the animal will need to come up for a breath. The success of the hunt depends on the skillful paddling, timing, aim, and balance of each hunter, but perhaps the most important factor of all is the quality of their primary weapon, hlg̱iid, the paddle-bow.
To begin the year 2015, twenty new bow-makers created their own traditional paddle-bows as part of a workshop hosted at Tluu X̱aadaa Naay in G̱aaw from January 12 to February 6.
Each participant invested over 40 hours in making their weaponry and together they created nine bows, twenty arrows in multiple styles, and nine custom-fitted leather arm guards featuring Haida designs.
Bowyer, Michael Mayr, guided the craftsmanship and provided expert instruction through his project, Archer Arts. Materials included hawthorn-bark bowstrings, spruce pitch, and Arctic fox, coyote, and sea otter fur, which were used in the construction and decoration of the bows. The beginners constructed their bows from birch, which is more pliable than the time-honoured hlg̱iid Pacific yew, using a historical northwest coast flat, paddle-bow design.
The Haida Gwaii Museum at Ḵay Llnagaay displayed a flat, paddle-bow in an exhibition titled Gina Suuda Tl’l X̱asii. Peculiar Haida-design features distinguish the 125+ years-old Pacific yew bow: its creator left nicks as they scraped the yew bare of its sapwood. This is unusual, as nicking and removing the sapwood from European yew bows would leave them very frail. However, because Pacific yew has higher tension strength, removing the soft, sensitive outer sapwood to reveal the tougher grain of the heartwood below can make Haida bows more durable. Bowyers also speculate that sapwood removal is conducive to moist coastal conditions. These factors would match the demands of canoe-life, where a bow would be knocked about significantly, and constantly soaked in rain and sea-spray.
Mr Mayr expects that by taking exact measurements of numerous old Haida bows at museums around the world, bowyers may be able to create exact replicas. Doing so could reveal the secrets of Haida bow-making.
Coordinators at the workshop in G̱aaw worked around the clock to teach their craft. Archer Arts donated over 700 hours of instruction in bow building, arrow making, leatherwork, forging, flint knapping, sharpening, and glass blowing. Flintknapper Adam Durrant also contributed lessons in creating glass, obsidian and flint arrowheads and knives. Participants learned, as well, to harvest and split their own bow-wood. These new materials are now seasoning in preparation for the next workshop.
“Pacific yew is so closely tied with Haida tools and weapons that it shares its name with the paddle bow: hlG̲iid. In Haida Gwaii, these hunting tools are uniquely fashioned. The unusual Haida paddle bow is stripped of its sapwood. This design is thought to be well suited for canoe life, where waves and rain keep everything well soaked.
Photo: Sean Young holding a yew bow, which is part of the Haida Gwaii Museum collection.