Indian boys were taught the art of the bow from an early age and, from the start, the education was as much about mastery of the essential skills as it was about competing with fellow children. What lessons were learned in childhood and adolescence would determine an individual’s stature within the tribe from that time forward.
Miller was especially taken with the archery skills of the Snake Indians who he met and studied during the rendezvous (CR#s 458, painted in 1837, was the first of a half dozen such images). He generally painted young men practicing, rather than children, but whichever age group he chose, he admired their dedication to the pursuit and their earnestness at achieving proficiency. In his writings, as in his art, he equates such practices with archer-heroes and divine immortals from antiquity. (Conrads, 106)
Peter H. Hassrick
Shoshone or Snake Indians
The Shoshone people were commonly known to mountain men of Miller’s day as Snakes. French traders sometime after 1668 reported hearing about Indians on the Plains whose name in sign language was a snake-like movement of the hand. This was taken to mean “snake,” thus these tribes were called Gens du Serpent, which translates from French to English as “Snake People.”
Meriwether Lewis, the first Euro-American the Shoshone met, reported in 1805:“They [Shoshone] seldom correct their children particularly the boys who soon become masters of their own acts. They gave us the reason that it cows and breaks the Sperit (sic)of the boy to whip him, and that he never recovers his independence of mind after he is grown.”
This image of two Snake (Shoshone) Indian boys shooting native-made bows provides insight to a rite of passage for all male children of Plains Indian tribes. Indian youth often honed their shooting skills by playing archery games, such as one boy shooting an arrow in the ground at a reasonable distance and then the other boys trying to hit the target arrow by shooting their own arrows at it. The one coming closest wins and becomes the initiator of the next round. Another favorite game was to toss an old moccasin in the air as a target to hit with an arrow before it landed. Many young men practiced for the buffalo hunt by shooting arrows at a specific tuft of grass while riding by on horseback at a full gallop.
Meriwether Lewis, the first Euro-American the Shoshone met, noted that “Their bows are made of ceader[cedar]or pine and have nothing remarkable about them. The back of the bow is covered with sinues[sinew] and glue and is about 2½ feet long. Much the shape of those used by SiouxsMandansMinnetares&c. their arrows are more slender generally than those used by the nations just mentioned but much the same in construction.”
Bow strings were made from sinew, preferably from sinew taken from the buffalo’s loin. Sinew is the cord or strip of fibrous tissue from the tendons of large animals such as deer, elk, and buffalo. Many Plains tribes covered the limbs of their bows with layers of sinew in order to achieve a consistent spring and give it added strength. Layers of sinew provide the bow with extra power for launching an arrow and therefore greater potential for taking down large game such as buffalo, elk and bear. The art of making bow strings, like that of making quality bows and arrows, was a specialty performed by certain craftsman in each tribe.
Bow Case and Quiver
Both young braves are wearing native-styled quivers. Plains Indian quivers were actually a combination accoutrement that included a long slender case for the bow and a short, but larger diameter cylindrical case for arrows. These cases were commonly made from buckskin or tanned buffalo hide. Fancier or ceremonial quivers were sometimes made from complete otter or lion skins tanned with the fur left on. To protect the wearer from the sharp metal point of hand-made arrows, a thick rawhide disc formed the bottom of the quiver.
Miller depicts the standing young archer wearing a garment made from a tanned animal hide with the fur left on, while the sitting boy appears to be dressed in a cloth garment. Both boys are wearing necklaces of white beads and the seated youth’s hair is adorned with a decoration made of graduated-sized discs, perhaps made of brass. Contact with Euro-Americans influenced clothing styles as cloth, beads, and metal items such as brass ornaments were acquired through trade.
For Further Reading
Edmo, William D., History and Culture of the Boise Shoshone and Bannock Indians
Laubin, Reginal and Gladys, American Indian Archery
Moulton, Gary E., The Journals of Lewis & Clark, Vol. 5.
LR: Children of the Snake Tribe
The artist; by descent to Louisa Whyte Norton; [Old Print Shop, New York, NY, 1947]; The Boatmen’s National Bank of St. Louis, MO; Bank of America, New York, NY; present owner, 2013