From Broken Bows to Boarding School, A Native Man Carries Forward Ancient Tool Knowledge
Do the Native kids today know how to hold a bow?
Do they know what you use to hold together an obsidian knife?
These questions fly at me in the grocery store when I happened to see my uncle Tom. I was both surprised to see him and excited to visit. Living on the reservation, you run into a lot of family at the grocery store. He began talking like we were in the middle of a conversation.
Who is Uncle Tom?
This native man appears gruff at first glance. But if you look and listen closely you will see an articulate man who loves the resources and teaching.
Tom Mosqueda is Yakama tribal member that lives in our homelands with his wife Denise. He’s smart and strong. He is generous with his words and teachings. His duality of this personality shows by the fact that he makes arrowheads while watching deer peacefully eat near his home. He wants to teach others about the bows and arrows, including making stone tools with obsidian.
My questions and insights flew and we kept a quick paced discussion in the middle of the isle. We talked about ancient tools, bows and arrows, obsidian, war, fishing and hunting areas and boarding school.
For some that passed by, perhaps my uncle with his braids and side smile seems different. “I walk into places and people assume I’m a drunk,” he said.
“I’m just trying to teach them something or offer some knowledge about these bows, but they just think I want money for beer, gosh, what is it going to take to let me teach people?” His question clenched my heart. It made me forget about my quick errand.
At that moment, I stepped up to learn a little. Right there, in the middle of the store. “Well, teach me,” I requested. He gave me a look that meant, well where do I begin?
I mentioned that I was researching the Yakama War and if he could elaborate on the fact that women were in the war.
Tom said, “Think about it. As a mother, if your little kids were in danger, you are darn right, you would have a weapon and use it to protect your kids.”
“We were very skilled with making tools and weapons with obsidian.”
He quickly switched to resources through the region.
“This is part of the reason we were so successful with usual and accustomed areas. Yakamas have an expansive area and routes.”
We could protect ourselves when traveling around to fish or hunt. At the mention of hunting, he switches to discuss the differences in sizes of arrowheads.
“There are differences in the size. A good hunter would use a smaller arrowhead. At first glance, people might not know why there is a difference. All you need is one good straight, efficient shot.”
He points his finger to accentuate a make-believe arrowhead traveling towards the rotisserie chicken. We chuckle at his demonstration and cleverness.
He pauses and says, “Oh I have something for you.” In a classic native relative style, he has been carrying around something in case he saw me.
Well, I am not sure if this is just in my family or others. Something about this just reiterates that someone is thinking of you and hoping to see you. This is one of the many reasons our relatives always try to say hello to one another.
Even if you are just trying to breeze through the grocery store in 5 minutes. My mind races with these thoughts of gratitude as I practically skip with excitement to his truck. He hands me an obsidian knife.
He said, “ I made this.” As I turned it around in my hand, he remarked how it is put together with pitch and sinew.
The Yakama people are very skilled at making tools and weapons with this volcanic glass called obsidian. This is also called chúksh (ch-ew-ksh).
Tom fears time is running out. He starts talking about boarding schools.
“One reason they took kids away to boarding school was to try to prevent us from passing down this knowledge. As a testament to our strength, I made this obsidian knife. To ensure this is passed down, I will teach others.”
Tom’s maternal grandmother and mother both attended boarding schools, but he went to Longview, Washington High School. He is very smart. Growing up, that is what we hear when we got good grades. “Your uncle Tom graduated early from High school.” Although he lives in the woods, he has conversations with other non-Native flint knappers (people that work with stone, including obsidian). He shares information about the policies to curb Native knowledge.
Other people see a pile of broken bows and wonder why so he explains history with them.
“On one site we saw a pile of broken bows. This surprises some, but when you think about it, during the assimilation era, the government wanted to curb the use of bows and arrows.”
It’s sad, but uncle Tom has no intention of having a keeping this information to himself. He asks, “Well how can we get this information to people?”
I said, “Uncle, what if I try to write a little about what you’ve shared? Then maybe others will have ideas or questions.”
He smiles and says, “Yeah.” While it was a simple response, I know the weight of the words. I have thought about how to share this information.
The next day, his wife texts me a photo “Uncle Tom with his newly made Rock Creek/Tenino bow.”
I share this conversation with my uncle Tom and I talking at the grocery store, to give a sense of accessibility to some knowledge. Natives are not always gathered around a campfire or in a tipi when talking about federal policy towards natives. He wants to share this knowledge with others.
This hope we feel for our teachings and ancient tools is being passed along to you by reading this. This is how great things begin friends.
The broken bows and arrows will not break our wisdom. Our ability to pass down the teachings will continue.
So, let’s hear your questions about bows, obsidian or knives.
If you could, what would you like to learn about? Help me with questions for uncle Tom.
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*Story updated March 5, 2018, to remove reference to a writer I no longer want associated with this story.
Wish the kids had gotten to know him better but better late than never.
I love this story and the description of Uncle Tom’s duality. I wonder how he uses chuksh nowadays – to hunt? to cook? to protect?