Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

May 13, 2014

Preserving a tribal tradition

TAHLEQUAH — It was a rustic scene Friday: men working under the shade of a tree, pulling a draw knife along a piece of Bois d’Arc wood, in search of the round core.

Steadily they moved in rhythm with a repeated the motion: pull, lift, repeat, as pieces of bark and bit of sap fell to the ground.

It was the first night of Richard Fields’ bow-making class at the Cherokee Arts Center. The class met again Saturday and will have two additional Saturday sessions. Hand-hewing a bow requires about 30 to 40 hours’ effort, and yew or Bois d’Arc are the two most commonly used woods. Both are known for durability, with Yew being found primarily in England and the northwestern United States.

For a little more than 20 years, Fields has hand-crafted wooded bows. He learned from an older cousin, who learned from their grandpa. Now, he drives regionally in search of good Bois d’Arc trees and people who will barter for one of his bows, which sell on average for $400.

“It’s a passion,” said Fields.

Finding trees and chopping them up to make bows is all enjoyable work for Fields, who compares finding the trees like looking for a needle in a haystack. They searched 1,700 acres one time, finding only three Bois d’Arc trees.

Two styles of bows he carves are a D bow, or flat bow, with the limbs the same width all the way through and a handle bow, which features a handle and arrow rest.

“You can dress it all up or leave it raw, just wood,” he said. “There’s a lot of room to customize a bow.”

He broke quite a few when he first started making bows.

“I still do once in a while,” Fields said. “Every piece of wood is different. There are always little flaws to fix to make it a little bit better. You take off the bark and sap to find the growth ring in the center and follow it all the way down the piece; that’s the secret.”

He doesn’t fight the wood.

“That’s what I found out, you have to let it be the way it wants to be,” he said. “Go with the flow for a good bow.”

When it’s finished, he always tries out a bow.

“I’ll make sure they leave with a bow,” he said. “And you shoot every one you make. I’ll set up a target when they’re finished.”

It is rewarding to Fields to share the skills he loves and help others discover how exciting it is.

“I like to see people find out they can learn a new skill,” he said.

Dan Scraper drove from Lawton to learn the art of bow-making.

Not that he’s ready to retire.

“But I’m thinking about it,” said Scraper. “And this looks like a hobby I could enjoy.”

In fact, bow-making has been on his mind since he was 8.

“Mom and Dad moved us back to Oklahoma, to an 1874 cabin in Adair county. I found a bow and arrow up in the attic, and it broke when I tried to use it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to replace that bow I broke, and Richard’s looked like that one.”

Working with the wood and knife was enjoyable for Scraper, and gave him time to plan how his bow would look completed.

“I’m excited about it,” said Scraper. “I feel like I’m learning a skill I didn’t have before. I’m making a prototype, looking at making one with sinew and covered with rattlesnake hide.”

Sinew is used because it will never break and covering it with snakeskin protects the sinew from the elements, he said.

He’s considering steaming the bow to re-curve it.

“You can put as much time into it as you really want to spend,” Scraper said.

There may be some decorative element to his bow, but he plans to use it when he goes hunting with some friends.

“I may go out in turkey season with them,” he said.

Scraper was celebrating his birthday on Saturday.

“This class is my birthday present from my wife; I’m turning 65 Saturday,” he said.

The students worked while Fields checked their progress, showing them how to feel the surface of the wood for flaws.

“I’m a hands-on teacher,” said Fields, who has lost count of how many bows he’s made in two decades. “It’s neat passing it on.”

Bow-making is one of the skills Lyle Deiter has been wanting to learn. After working about three hours Friday night, he said he already felt like he’d learned a lot.

“It’s interesting. I knew it theoretically, but now it’s nice to be actually doing it, not just reading about it or watching videos,” Deiter said.

He’s used a draw knife before, when tanning hides and peeling logs, but said bow-making is more delicate work.

After completing the bow, Deiter said he’ll take it out and try it, probably on deer.

“I hope to make more,” he said.

As for the class, he said was enjoying being outdoors.

“And it’s always nice to meet new people who aren’t afraid to share their knowledge,” Deiter said.

Anyone with Bois d/Arc trees they’re willing to barter for a hand-hewn bow can reach Richard Fields at 918-316-7419

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