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Drawing back on traditions

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By S.E. Ruckman -- Tulsa World

SCHULTER, Okla. (AP) - Inside every bois d'arc tree, a longbow is waiting to emerge.

Knowing how to craft one is easy compared with coaxing the bow out of the tree, says Mike Berryhill, a Muscogee (Creek) Indian who has made longbows - which are used to shoot arrows - in the tradition of his ancestors for decades.

''A bow has to have heart,'' he said. ''Bois d'arc is a wood with heart.''

In the days when the Creek people lived on their Georgia homelands, before their forced removal to Oklahoma, hunters used longbows exclusively for sustenance, Berryhill said.

''This is who we are; it's a part of our culture,'' he said. ''Nowadays, we are taught how to make a living, and that's good, but back then it was survival, pure and simple.''

The Creek elder estimates that he has made dozens of Indian longbows in his lifetime. He got acquainted with, and then consumed by, longbows at the instruction of his grandfather, Joe Berryhill.

''I was about 8 when we started being around longbows,'' Mike Berryhill said. ''I've been involved with making them ever since.''

Many types of bowmakers exist, and they come out of the woodwork for frontier-oriented events, Berryhill said. He usually attends gatherings wearing his tribe's traditional attire.

But bowmaking the Creek way is a dying art form, he said.

''This is something I want to teach young people,'' he said. ''Still, it's hard to get them interested in it because it's such a time-consuming process.''

Berryhill must cut and cure the wood before making a longbow. Depending on the wood, weeks or months can pass before a bow can be finished. He has made bows out of locust, elm and hickory, but he prefers bois d'arc.

''I don't see my part in it as any special thing,'' he said. ''The real deal is being out there and listening. I sometimes feel like I can hear when it's time for me to start working on a bow.''

First, the right piece of wood must be found. Berryhill has spent many hours tramping through acres of bois d'arc trees to find a potential longbow. The tree is not cut down; only a branch is removed.

''I try to waste nothing when I take a piece of wood,'' he said.

Once he finds the right tree and branch, timing is everything.

The old-timers theorized that the moon has a say in what time of the month a limb should be removed. If it is cut down when the moon is too full, the wood is apt to be weak. Cold weather is the best time to cut, because the tree's sap has drawn down to its roots. That makes the wood easier to work with, Berryhill said.

''It's the gravitational pull. The moon is very powerful, but we've lost our ability to realize that and use it for our benefit,'' he said. ''Some white bowmakers will say that it doesn't matter when the wood is cut, but I don't agree.''

Berryhill calls himself a tree-reader, likening trees to humans. Each has attributes and weaknesses, but appearances can be deceiving, he said.

''We both come from the Earth,'' he said. ''We also have different characters and colors. Like wood, some people are easy to work with, while others are gnarly.''

The attributes of a bois d'arc bow are obvious. One of the longbows on his living room wall - a handsome, richly darkened instrument about 5 feet long - glows with a soft luster, but it has not been stained.

Berryhill makes arrows, too. He uses river cane, which he says seems made for arrow-making. But river cane is becoming harder to find locally, he said.

His arrows either are fitted with pre-made ends from kits or he makes the points out of bois d'arc. Turkey feathers adorn the opposite end. He puts his arrows into a quiver that he tanned himself. The quiver smells faintly of smoke and holds more than a half-dozen arrows.

About 90 percent of the longbows Berryhill makes are for non-Indians who wish to own a real Indian bow, he said. People have paid him as much as $375 for his bows, but he also has given them away as gifts.

''Sometimes I've made bows that I couldn't part with, maybe because a part of me goes into them,'' he said.

''If you think about it, almost every culture on Earth at some time or another has used the bow and arrow in their history.''

Members of other area tribes also make longbows. The Cherokee Nation has named several of its longbow makers as living art treasures. Archers from that tribe, as with the Creeks, fashion their own bows. Both tribes use them to hunt game, from which they will take meat and Native medicine.

Regulations for bowhunters in Oklahoma are the same whether the weapons are crossbows, compound or homemade bows, said Jim Edwards, assistant chief of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Department's Law Enforcement Division. The season runs through Jan. 15.

The archery specifications include a minimum 40-pound pull for the bow, Edwards said. Homemade bows are popular in the state with Indians and non-Indians, although it is harder to bring down a deer with them, he said.

''The home bow gets back to a more traditional type of archery here in Oklahoma,'' he said.

Berryhill said he hopes someday to teach his 7-year-old grandson how to use and make Creek longbows. The youngster has not shown much interest yet, but Berryhill holds out hope.

There's still time, although he laments the passing of tribal elders who take their knowledge, such as bowmaking, with them.

''Bows are a lot like Indians, in my opinion,'' he said. ''They both have resiliency.''