Buffalo Break Rocks!
Buffalo have a well-earned reputation for being tough animals. Under the right circumstances, several different parts of their bodies can even break rocks - in impressive ways. This story lives at the intersection of bison lore and traditional culture.
Flintknapping (chipping sharp-edged stone tools from flint-like rocks) may be the ultimate form of traditional art. It's certainly one of the oldest, and it's been practiced by the ancestors of every person on this planet. It's a heritage that connects us. As shared previously, I (Ian) been flintknapping for nearly all of my life, but over just the past couple of months, I’ve been taught something within this artform that kind of blows my mind.
Let's start by going back a bit. For the uninitiated, flintknapping, or “knapping” for short, works because certain types of stone like flint, chert, and agate, have glass-like properties that allow artisans to break them in predicable ways to achieve a desired outcome. The result can be a single sharp-edged chip of stone (ideal for skinning a deer) or it can be a complex spear head, shaped by removing hundreds of flakes very precisely. People of the past made sophisticated stone spear heads in particular styles. These styles came from traditional tools, techniques, and materials that were passed down through their communities and filtered through the talent and creativity that a given individual brought to the need at hand.
Every time a flake is removed from a piece of stone, it leaves behind a flake scar. Every type of knapping tool leaves behind slightly different types of flake scars on the rock, kind of like fingerprints. Flake scars are also like footprints. Placed one on top of the other, they give clues into the series of steps used to make a stone cutting tool.
Chipping a functional spear point from stone is one thing. Making one that follows the tradition of a specific, ancient style is quite another. It involves not just making a point that has the same outline as an old one, but using the tools, techniques, and series of flake removals that are part of that specific tradition. Why bother?
For one, working in a traditional style gives you a powerful connection with the people of the past. Sure, your hands move in the same motions theirs did, but more importantly, so does your mind. Your intellect winds through the same chess game - one of chipping off this piece of stone in order to be able to remove this other piece of stone next, in order to ultimately be able to remove a final predetermined piece of stone 50 steps later to complete the point. It's pretty cool how the stone can connect us so intimately with the thought process of someone who lived 10,000 years ago. Almost without fail, this exercise shows that people of the past were every bit as smart was we are today, and that they conditioned their minds and hands to be more proficient at some things than we usually are.
In the 1990s, knapping was a social movement. Two weekends a year, my wonderful parents took me to a get-together known as the Fort Osage Knap-in. Most modern knappers use copper tools. Out of 100 knappers at Fort Osage, I'd gravitate to watching the 3 or so using traditional tools made of antler, stone, and bone. Common wisdom was that horn just isn’t tough enough to make practical knapping tools. One of my favorite people to watch was Marty Rueter, because of his innovation in revitalizing ancient tools and point styles.
Since those days, I've lost contact with most of the knapping community beyond of Choctaw Nation. This fall, I stumbled onto Marty's YouTube channel. I think my jaw hit the ground when I saw him chipping a beautiful spear point using a buffalo horn on a stick! Slide an old buffalo horn on a stick. Push the far end of the stick into the ground. In a sitting position, slide the middle of the stick under your right knee and use your knee to hold the tip of the horn against the piece of stone you want to flake. Smack the base of the horn with a buffalo leg bone and “Holy Tintinnabulation Batman!” - The preconception I’d carried for all these years that horn couldn’t be used to chip serious points shattered in a split second.
To be clear, buffalo horn follows most of the same rules as any other knapping tool, and is most effective either on very brittle stone like dacite or very tough stone like quartzite. When these conditions are met, though, horn lets you take off, big, thin flakes in the final stages of shaping a spear point. The flake scars are flatter than the scars left by antler tools, and match the scars on some of the old points.
Clovis points are a style made by people across the US 13,000 years ago, who among other things used them to hunt and process giant Ice Age bison. The title image shows two Clovis points that I chipped from dacite using a buffalo horn, buffalo leg bone percussor, buffalo ulna pressure flaker, and a deer antler pressure flaker. I've been making some styles of Clovis points since I was a freshman in high school, but I could not make Clovis points with these flake characteristics until I tried the buffalo horn. Thanks Marty!
You've probably heard the old saying that a buffalo carries everything that Native American communities needed to live, food, clothing, shelter, and raw materials. I thought that was true except when it came to flintknapping tools. This fall, I've been taught that it's possible to make sophisticated stone spear points using nothing but materials that come from a buffalo (plus a hammer stone). The flake scars match the scars found on some of the old points out on the Plains. This has opened up a new chapter, at least to me, in bison lore and helps me to appreciate these special animals even more.
We recently harvested a buffalo at Nan Awaya Farm. Last week, its meat was featured in the special at Champuli, the Cultural Center restaurant. As I was getting the hide ready to braintan into a robe, I struggled, as I always do, with keeping my steel scraper sharp. Knapping tools and stone were still sitting out from making buffalo horn Clovis points. I put down the metal and in 30 seconds chipped a stone scraper. Sharpness was never an issue again. I’ve scraped buffalo hides with stone before, but never used it to thin one for a robe - a far more intensive job. Compared to my metal scraper, the stone one proved to be a superior tool that produced a superior finished product.
Recent experiences with buffalo horn, hide, and stone have reminded me how many valuable things the traditional arts hold, and how much fun they can be. This inspired me to build out a new corner of the Nan Awaya Farm website to host a digital portfolio of the traditional work that I've made over the years, and which is still an important part of what we do at Nan Awaya Farm. I hope seeing these pieces and hearing their stories might inspire someone out there the way Marty’s videos have inspired me.