Growing Up Indian: Getting Creative Making Toys
Dr. Dean Chavers
We Indian boys liked to play outdoors, make believe we were old time Indians, hunt things like old Indians used to, play cowboys and Indians (but few of us wanted to be the cowboys), and listen to stories of the old days from the elders.
My best friends and I became expert craftsmen at some things. We would fish every chance we got. We would make juvembers, bows and arrows, rabbit boxes, bird falls, and wheelbarrows. They were the tools of our trade as boys. These tools and fishing helped sustain us. Play was also partly about getting something to eat.
Juvembers are sometimes inaccurately called slingshots. They were our main hunting weapons. Bows and arrows were almost as good, but parents didn’t like them. They were hard to make and the arrows were dangerous. Parents seldom got upset at juvembers, however. Once in a while Momma would say, “Don’t bring that mess in here,” and we would have to leave the bow and arrow or the juvember outside.
Juvembers were fairly easy to make. You needed a forked stick, some rubber from an old inner tube, some string, and a pouch from an old shoe tongue. Red rubber, which was hard to find, was better than black rubber. It stretched better and lasted longer. You had to find a forked stick ten or twelve inches long that was as symmetrical as possible, for accuracy. It would ideally be an oak or a green hedge, for toughness.
We cut notches at the end of the forks to secure the strings, and then tied the strings to the notches. The other end of the strings we tied to six-inch pieces of rubber half an inch wide. Another short piece of string we tied to the other end of the rubber, then to a small hole cut on either side of the pouch.
Your ammunition was rocks, or some hard seed like corn if you only wanted to sting a naughty brother on the butt. If you were hunting, the ammo was always rocks because nothing else would kill the game. A good juvember took an hour or two to make and you were ready to go hunting. We hardly ever hit anything with them.
Birds, rabbits, and squirrels were safe in our company when we were armed with juvembers. I never killed a rabbit or squirrel with one, and very few birds. But we hunted for wrens, robins, purple martins, crows, red birds, mockingbirds, squirrels, and rabbits.
Bows and arrows were harder to make, but stronger and more accurate. I actually killed a few things with arrows. We made the bows from little oak trees. We would bend them permanently into an arc. After cutting a notch at each end, we would tie some strong cord between the notches on the ends. Sometimes we would put a short stretch of rubber near each end to give the arrow more power.
We mainly made the arrows out of reeds. They grew everywhere on the ditch banks, and were considered a nuisance. Besides using them for arrows, the only other use we knew of for reeds was to hold up tobacco bed canvas.
We would split the small end of the reed between the last two joints and put a chicken feather inside the reed to make it fly straight, securing the end by wrapping it with thread. We always put the arrowhead on the large end of the stick.
The worst part was the arrowhead. Mostly we didn’t have one. We just sharpened the end of the reed and let it be the arrowhead. Some of the local boys would cut the heads off ten-penny nails and use the nails for arrowheads, but I never tried that. Momma would have killed us if we had brought something home like that. Sharpened reeds were bad enough.
Rabbit boxes were about the only way we ever got a rabbit. They took much longer to make, and it was hard to get them to work the way they were supposed to. We made them from four pieces of wood. The top board was cut two inches shorter than the other three, to let the trap door fit in the top to drop down and capture the rabbit.
The top board would have two holes drilled in it, one in the middle and the other near the back end. The hole in the middle was to hold the notched limb that held the bait on one end and the trap door on the other end. The hole near the back end was to hold the trip stick and the bait attached to it.
The idea was to put some bait such as a piece of apple, a piece of onion, or a piece of carrot on the end of the trip stick to lure the rabbit into the box. He could get his whole body in because the trap door was held above the top of the slide at the front end by the notched limb that connected the bait stick and the trap door. When he started to eat the bait, he would push the bait stick toward the rear end, freeing the notch from being caught under the hole. As soon as the notch cleared the bottom of the hole, the door would fall and trap the rabbit in the box.
We would put the rabbit box out at night close to a rabbit run and go check it first thing the next morning to see if we had caught a rabbit. If we had, we would grab him by the back legs and sling him against a tree or the ground. Rabbits are very easy to kill; one whack against a tree will kill them. Then we would take them home and skin and gut them. Rabbit was a welcome change to the pork and chicken we ate so much of. We would make a stew or bake it with carrots and onions.
The biggest problem with rabbit traps was possums. I don’t think I ever caught more than two rabbits in a box without it being spoiled by a possum. They like the same bait as rabbits, and once they went in the box, no rabbit would come close to it again. A possum has a strong smell, which apparently rabbits do not like.
Daddy said we could boil the box in hot water and get rid of the smell, but I never bothered. I would just throw the box away and make a new one. We had no use for possums. No one I knew would eat one. We would just let them go, in disgust. Possums are the garbage eaters of the wild.
Simple wheelbarrows were something I made new almost every year. We would find an old wheel somewhere, and make the wheelbarrow from that. The wheel might come from an old discarded tin wagon, a toy pedal car, or an old discarded wheelbarrow.
Once we had a wheel, with a hole in the middle to let a bolt go through, we built the body from two handles of one-by-fours. The handles were attached to the wheel and the bolt through holes drilled into the handles about six inches from the end. We would load up the bolt with washers between the wheel and the handles to keep them from wearing out too soon.
Then we would nail boards across the handles to form a solid bottom. The handles would bow out from the wheel in a large V shape, to let the user fit his body between the handles.
These wheelbarrows were not tools, but toys. I mainly used them to give the little kids rides around the yard. Some years this was as close as we got to going to the county fair to ride the Ferris wheel.
If you were going to try to haul a hundred pound bag of fertilizer on them, it would be almost as hard as carrying it on your back. Having the wheel at the end of the barrow, instead of closer to the middle, gave you little advantage for carrying weight. We never tried any other style, such as putting the wheel in the middle. That would have required higher mechanics, which was not our interest. We just wanted to have some fun.
A couple of times we had a tin wagon, and I used it to give the little kids thrill rides. They especially liked going around curves at high speed and being afraid of being turned over. One of our teachers, Mister Bernard Lowery, brought one of his toys to school one day to show us. It was a pedal car, but the part that made it go was operated with the hands. The feet guided it, which was kind of weird. We never tried to make one of those.
We had other sources of fun with animals. We would catch a June bug, and tie a light string, like a piece of tobacco twine, to one of its legs. Then we had our own helicopter, which would fly around our heads in circles as we held the string.
The other animal was a cat, which every farm has to have to keep the rat population down. We would catch the cat, which sometimes wanted to fight being captured, and tie a little paper sack with some dried peas in it to the cat’s tail. We would then turn the cat loose. The cat would go crazy running around trying to get that noisy thing off its tail. I realize now that this was some kind of cruelty to animals.
The simplest thing we made was bird falls. This was a heavy board propped up by a stick a couple of feet long. The stick would have a long cord attached to it. We would be attached to the other end of the cord, hiding out of sight. We would put seed or breadcrumbs under the board and wait for some birds to come under it to eat, and then jerk the stick out from under the heavy board.
The worst part of killing birds is having to clean them. You would pluck feathers until you were tired of it, and then have to singe (we called it “swinge”) them to get the pin feathers off. We would singe them over a small fire in the back yard. Then we would have to gut them. After you had killed and cleaned about 15 of them, you would have enough for a meal. It seemed to take forever.
The other thing we did while growing up Indian was to take kids snipe hunting. This works best if you have a city kid who has never been on a farm before, especially if he is a smart mouth. You tell them snipes live mostly in ditches, but they are easy to catch.
You take them out to a ditch after dark with a bag. You tell them, “Hold the bag over the ditch. I am going to go down the ditch and run the snipe up to you. The snipe are so dumb they will run right into the bag and you can catch them. Then we will have a big meal of snipe the next day for dinner.”
It’s better if the ditch has some water in it, and the night is slightly cold, and he has to stand in the water. After you have the kid in place, you leave and go home to bed. The more stupid ones will stay out there until after midnight waiting for the snipe to run into the bag.
Then they will come home to find the doors locked and have to wake up someone in the house to let them in. You kids will all be sound asleep, of course, so they will have to wake up your parents, which makes them mad at the kid.
And if your luck does not hold, you will get your hide tanned the next day for playing the trick on the naïve city boy.
Most of the time, we didn’t have to deal with the mean white people in town while growing up Indian. But inevitably we would have to go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the drug store, and the FCX.
I had to go to the FCX a lot to buy poisons, parts for plows and other farm implements, chicken feed, and things like plow lines, string, and fertilizer. The owner, Raymond Hendrix, was one of the nicest white people in town. He never insulted me or any other Indian that I know of. Ruth Wiggins, a white lady who worked at the grocery store for years, was another kind person. She worked all the time. Her husband Shep Wiggins was a horse trader or some such, and apparently didn’t make a lot of money.
But many of the white men were not kind to Indians. They would watch us from the time we went in the store until the time we left, thinking we would steal something. Old Man Rogers, who ran the drug store, was always gruff, but not mean. He looked at us every time we went in to make sure we didn’t steal anything, though.
Some of the kids I grew up with made it a habit to try to steal. One of their favorite stores was a discount store named Pickett’s. Some kids called in Pickett’s Pick-Up Store because they stole so much out of it. I never stole anything, knowing I would get tanned two or three times if I ever got caught. And I don’t remember any of the kids getting caught stealing in that store.
The other mean old man was Old Man McCormick. We used to walk by his house on the way to and from school and wonder what he did. He lived in a big house all by himself. All we ever saw him do is ride around in his car and collect rents. He owned a bunch of houses. I learned later that he had an Indian girlfriend. I still wonder what she saw in that crusty old man.