Talking with the Rocks
In precious little bits of free time over the last couple of weeks, I (Ian) have been working on a small flintknapping project. Flintknapping - chipping rocks into sharp-edged tools - may be humanity's oldest form of art. One of my main early mentors in the traditional arts got his start through a personal encounter with a rock that would change his life forever. In a way, talking with the rocks has shaped my life too. When I was seven years old, my Uncle and I came across some Winterset chert (aka "flint"), in the ground. Bringing some of it home, my Uncle proceeded to use a railroad spike to knock off flakes and chip them into small arrow points. I still have the first "arrow point" that I made with him that day. Made by a little kid, it really doesn't look much like a point at all, just a rock, but that experience kindled a burning interest for me. Before I was 18, this interest had led me to invest thousands of hours in learning how to make arrow points, along with a variety of other traditional art forms, and to begin teaching them to others who shared the same interest. That day spent with my Uncle and some rocks, now almost exactly 30 years ago, has had a huge influence on the course of my life ever sense.
There's something special very about walking in the same places your Indigenous ancestors walked since time out of mind. I see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of my friends and family during the times when we return to our Choctaw homeland in Mississippi/Alabama. As a flintknapper, there's also something very special about making tools out of exactly the same types of stone that your ancestors used. One of the main stones that the Choctaw ancestors used is known as "Tuscaloosa chert". You can find it in the streams of the homeland, as small yellowish-tan cobbles, among the gravel bars. By the standards of modern American flintknappers, Tuscaloosa chert is not stellar stuff. The pieces are small, round-ish, and of variable quality. You can't make a big, beautiful spear point out of them. Yet for me, and others, flintknapping is about more than art, it is about being a part of the connection with the land that is hundreds of generations deep. Several times in the last decade, and most recently last month, I've had the privilege to visit the streams where generations of Choctaw ancestors collected cobbles of Tuscaloosa chert. The technique that I use to process it into points, and which I believe my grandfathers used as well, is as follows:
In the Choctaw language, this type of stone is called "tasvnnuk". After respectfully collecting the stone cobbles, let them sit in a dry place for a month. This allows most of the water trapped between the tiny particles in the stone to escape, and thus, prevents violent explosions from occurring during the next step of the process. On a calm day, dig a foot-and-a-half deep pit in the ground. Build a hardwood fire in the pit and allow it to burn down into a 3-4 inch thick layer of coals. Cover the hot coals with about 2 inches of dry sand. Spread the chert cobbles out over the layer of sand, not allowing them to touch each other. Cover them up with more dry sand. This should leave a shallow basin in the ground, 3-4 inches deep. Build up another fire of hardwood in the basin, until it has produced a 4-inch-thick layer of coals and then let it begin burning out. Allow everything to sit for two days, and then dig up the stone.
If done properly, this procedure will slowly heat the stone to around 1,000 degrees and then slowly cool it. This heat-treating metamorphosizes the stone in two important ways. First, it causes the stone to become more glassy, and easier to chip. Second, it essentially causes the iron particles within the stone to rust, often changing the stone's color from a drab tan to blood-red. This has important symbolism in Choctaw culture.
Shaping these small, round cobbles into thin arrow points is sometimes a little challenging. You begin by hitting them strategically with a hammer stone to split the cobbles, or to drive off large, thin flakes. These become the preforms for the arrow points. Next, you shape the edges and surface of a preform in such a way that you can strike it with the rounded base of a deer antler and drive off flakes across its flat surfaces. This thins the preform, shapes it, and makes the edges sharp. You do the finer shaping by pressing a deer antler tine hard against the edge of the stone, to remove smaller, narrower flakes. A deer ulna bone is used in much the same way to create a needle point and razor-sharp serrated edges. The end result is the business end of a traditional Choctaw arrow.
These little red arrow points may not inspire the same sense of visual awe as the giant knife blades that can be made from the types of stone found in some other regions of the country. Yet, they have more significance to me. I once had the honor of holding in my hand a 10,000-year-old point made from this stone that may well have been crafted by a 500-times grandfather of mine. The little red-colored stone arrow points, whose manufacture was just described, began to be made about 1,300 years ago. For centuries, they helped our grandfathers to provide meat for their families. On October 18, 1540, these same little red arrow points flashed through the air at the Battle of Mabilla as thousands of Choctaw ancestors willingly gave up their lives in a determined counter-attack to try to stop the brutal advance of Hernando De Soto's army. These same red stones still fly today in Southeastern Oklahoma on a handful of Choctaw-made arrows. From time-to-time, you hear people muse, "If only the stone could only talk, they might have a lot to tell us." - In reality, they do talk...They always have.