Sunday, April 13, 2014

Navajo History

We were pleased recently to have the opportunity to visit the Crow Canyon petroglyph site in northwestern New Mexico.  The twenty-mile dirt road into the site is well maintained to support access to the area's oil and gas wells.  However, it is a long enough journey to discourage casual visitors, and we saw no other people in the morning we spent exploring the canyon.

Crow Canyon is well-known to rock art enthusiasts, and photographs are easy to find on the web.  Most descriptions accompanying the pictures reference the symbolic connections to the Navajo pantheon.  None I have come across, however, take note of the extraordinarily sophisticated technology on display in the rock art panels.

The bows depicted are all examples of the highest order of bow-making expertise, having a reflex, recurve design that implies composite construction with materials including wood, antler, horn, sinew, and hide glue.

It is possible that the Athapaskan ancestors of the Navajo brought their knowledge of reflex and recurve bow design with them as they made their centuries-long migration from the far north.  In the arctic regions of the New World, there were no suitable wooden staves of sufficient length to make single-component self bows, so composite designs were a necessity.  Old World archers also developed radically-reflexed designs for their bows, but the impetus in that case was more oriented toward the functional advantage conferred by a compact form for use by mounted warriors and hunters.  Navajo adoption of a mobile horse culture facilitated by the Spanish invasion may have yielded a similar preference for a compact and powerful bow design.

Specific details of Navajo archery are hard to come by on the web.

  • The fundmentals of bow design are well explained in the Wikipedia page about Bow Shapes.
  • Bow construction and usage are nicely described at a Czech site in the article, Plains Indians Bows.
  • A well-written capsule history of the Navajo people by J. W. Sharp is available at DesertUSA : The Athapaskan Speakers.
  • Chris Loendorf at the UofA has done some work on comparing southwest bow types. He suggests that while different Native American groups used recurved bows, it was the Athapaskan people who first brought the design to the southwest. The only web link I have to his work is through a subscription-only site run by, but there is a messaging link there by which he can be contacted.


Jim said...

I enjoyed your short exposition on bows.

I'm part Cherokee and Potawotami. It would be wonderful to go someplace here in Indiana to find evidence of my ancestors, but alas, no such thing exists. It does not help, I'm sure, that we forced all the Indians out of the state during the 1800s.

So I guess the closest I can come to visiting such a place is to go to the statue of Potawatomi chief Menominee erected in 1909 on the land his tribe occupied at the time they were forcibly marched off it.

Julio F said...

Thanks for sharing this rock art. These were indeed advanced bow designs.