About denniscassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli, avid outdoorsman, history buff and archaeology enthusiast, is the author of four books about the Great Basin region. Raised in Sparks, Nevada, Cassinelli developed an interest in Indian artifacts as a young boy working on his family’s ranch. In the early 1990s, he painstakingly identified hundreds of projectile points to create the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection, now located at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada.

‘Making Arrows’ Part 8

After the stone nodules were taken from the heat treatment, they were struck a well directed blow with another stone to break off large flakes. Flakes of different sizes were struck off the lump of stone, which now became known as a “core.” The core was turned in the hand to find the ideal surface from which to strike the size and shape of flake desired for the item being made.

With practice, this striking off flakes would produce the right shape blanks for making arrow points, knives, scrapers or other tools. The area around where the craftsman was striking flakes from a core quickly became littered with discarded flakes, chips and pieces of cores that were not quite the right shape to be used for whatever tool he had in mind. Those flakes that were the right size and shape were set aside or bagged in a pouch for further processing.

Coyote used the same methods used by Stone Age hunters for the past million years to make his stone tools. He used a few completed points given to him by Silent Buck as patterns to gauge the size of his flakes being struck from the core. After a few days of trial and error, Coyote produced a heavy leather pouch full of arrow point blanks he had struck that met with the approval of Silent Buck. Now that he had the raw material for making the arrowheads, he was ready to begin the next, and most tedious step, that of pressure flaking to make the finished arrowheads.

The flakes he had struck from the core all had the same basic leaf shape with a slight ridge up the center of one side and a slightly rounded convex surface on the other side. Only about one flake in every ten struck from the core had a shape suitable for making an arrowhead. Basalt, the material being used by the mountain hunters, was a dull, black volcanic stone that chipped fairly well when properly heat treated. It was most commonly used in the High Sierra hunting camps due to its abundance in the mountains.

To perform the fine pressure flaking, Coyote used a sheet of thick leather draped over his knee to use as a work platform. In addition, he had a leather “palm” with a thumb hole cut in it to wear on his left hand to protect it from being cut by the glasssharp chips as they were dislodged. He held the stone arrowhead blank in the leather-lined palm of his left hand, securely resting on his knee. With a pointed tine of deer horn, held in his right hand, he applied quick, snapping pressure against the edge of the stone blank at each place along the edge where he wanted to make a chip. With pressure applied at just the right angle, the chips came off in tiny, narrow ribbons that went halfway across the surface of the blank.

The pressure flaking left a distinctive pattern along each side of the arrowhead. Both edges and both sides had to be chipped to obtain the desired shape for the type of arrowheads he was making. Once the sides were chipped, the corners were notched using the same inward pressure to dislodge the tiny chips. Silent Buck checked in often to correct Coyote about subtle deviations in shape, thickness, width, length and workmanship. The shaman rejected several points that had imperfections by smashing them with a rock so no one would attempt to use them.

Though the criticism may have seemed harsh, Coyote began to develop an appreciation for perfection in his workmanship. After the inferior points were weeded out by the shaman, those remaining were truly works of art, having a distinctive shape and form that defined the customary type of arrowheads made by his people. Coyote became extremely proud as he held the handful of perfect stone points that he had created. Unknown to him, the beauty of his workmanship would be discovered and appreciated by modern man hundreds of years later.

After finally receiving some praise from Silent Buck for the fine quality of his work, Coyote became obsessed with doing well. He became determined to produce the finest projectile points by any hunter in the tribe. At last he was beginning to think of himself as a master of his art. He was eager to produce the perfect weapon and move on to the mastery of hunting with the weapons he had made.

In his enthusiasm to produce more and higher quality arrowheads, Coyote dislodged a chip of basalt that struck him in the eye. Startled, he quickly rubbed the razor sharp chip of stone into his eyeball with the knuckle of his hand. The chip cut its way into the man’s eyelid and eyeball, drawing blood, tears and intense pain. It would take a few days of rest and healing before he was able to resume his work. The concentrated effort of working with the sharp stone pieces was also taking its toll on his raw, sore fingers. They were bloody from being cut in several places by the shards of stone.

While Coyote Skin perfected his flintknapping expertise and recovered from his occupational injuries, Squealing Rabbit sharpened his talents at perfecting the arrow shafts for the two of them. Rabbit shaped his steatite arrow-straightening stone to fit the exact shape of his palm. He heated the stone in the fire as he had seen the other hunters do. He then took a thick piece ofleather folded over a few times to use as a hot pad to protect his hand as he worked with the hot stone.

Rabbit took each blank arrow shaft and examined it closely, sighting down its length to determine where each curve in the wood had to be removed. Using the surface of a downed log as a work platform, he applied the hot, grooved arrow straightener to the shaft and ironed it back and forth along its length until even the slightest curves were removed. As he worked, a hot sizzling steam often issued forth from the wood. The hot stone permanently removed the moisture and curves from the shafts and helped to polish and steam-cure the wood to retain its straightened shape.

‘Making Arrows’ Part 7

In an instant, the intruder was gone, but then another problem became evident. In the excitement of the intruding bear, the boys had thrown away their hard-found pieces of stone. In the heavy underbrush, it was almost impossible to find anything. After considerable crawling around on hands and knees in the direction they had thrown the stones, they each found one of the missing rocks. Since it was getting late in the day, they decided to return to camp. Without any weapons, they had no appetite to stay out in the woods any longer with an angry bear on the loose.

Silent Buck was waiting by the campfire to examine the stones the boys had found and to make sure they were suitable. When the boys arrived, the shaman asked to see the stones they had brought back. Rabbit and Coyote each handed the shaman the stone they had recovered after the bear ambush.

“You mean to tell me you went all the way to get these stones, and you each brought back only one?” asked the shaman. “Why did you not bring back a supply of them for future use? Sometimes they break under the heat and pressure that must be applied, or they simply wear out after being used for many arrows.”

It was Coyote who blurted out the unbelievable reply: “We were attacked by a bear, and we had to throw all our rocks at him to keep from being eaten! These are the only stones we could find after the attack to bring back with us.”

Buck instantly bristled with anger at the whopper he thought he was being told. “I told you I never wanted to hear another lie from you or I would make you pick berries with the women!”

“No! It is true,” interrupted Rabbit. “We did bring several of the stones with us. When we were startled by the bear, we threw the rocks at him to drive him away, and then we couldn’t find all of them. Please don’t be angry with us.”

“So! You are a liar too,” shouted the shaman. “What reason do I have to trust either of you?”

Buck then stomped off to his lodge, leaving the boys to listen to the snickers of the hunters beginning to gather around the campfire.

That evening, the boys retired early to their cedar bark lodge, discouraged by the scolding the shaman had given them. They grumbled about the false accusation until late into the evening. Feelings of rage welled up inside them, and a helpless feeling that nothing could ever be done to make the shaman believe them. They had truly tried everything they could to please the demanding instructor, only to anger him through no fault of their own. Fatigue finally dragged them to sleep amid sobs of discouragement.

Next morning, the boys slept in later than usual, when they were awakened by the stern voice of Silent Buck at the door. ”Get out here,” the shaman commanded. “There is something out here I must show you.”

The boys shook the sleep from their eyes and stumbled out into the bright sunlight. Buck waited for them outside the lodge with his fists resting on his hips as if ready to resume the angry lecture he had given them the night before. The rising sun was behind the shaman, and it nearly blinded the !ate rising arrow makers. Behind Buck, they could see a large group of hunters from the camp milling around a huge pine tree with something banging from a branch. As they walked closer to the commotion, they could see that the men were skinning out a big, shaggy brown bear – the same bear the boys had thrown the rocks at the day before.

As the boys walked closer to the men skinning out the carcass, Buck walked up alongside them and told them the story. “Late last night, some of the hunters dragged in this bear. They had killed it yesterday as they saw it running away from the hill where we gather our steatite. They said it seemed to have been dazed by a bruised head and a swollen eye. Sometimes even a shaman is known to be too hasty to pass judgment. “

Buck wandered off as the boys went over to watch the hunters skinning the bear. In addition to several arrow wounds to the animal’s body, there was a large, bloody bruise over the bear’s eye. Rabbit and Coyote turned to one another and slapped each other on their bare shoulders in congratulations. Two of the hunters skinning the bear came over to Rabbit and Coyote and congratulated them for helping with the bear kill by dazing him with the rocks.

‘Well, I suppose that was as close to an apology we will ever get from Buck,” remarked Rabbit.

“I don’t really care about any apology,” replied Coyote. “Just so long as Buck now knows we aren’t telling a lie about what happened. At least he won’t have that to hold against us any longer.”

With their discouragement soothed, Coyote went back to work making arrowheads and Rabbit worked on shaping his new arrow straightener. At last, Coyote made progress with the all important stone points for the arrows. Once he learned the secret of heat treating the stone before attempting to shape it, his technique improved greatly over what he had done earlier.

Over a period of several days, Coyote placed many lumps of basalt in the sand-lined fire pit for varying lengths of time. In this way, he found the right combination of temperature and time for treatment to make the chipping of the stone most efficient. He found that with proper heat treating, the flakes and chips fairly zinged off as he worked the stone.

The ancient art of flintknapping was the one invention that truly separated men from the other animals. Only when a creature became able to fashion a tool from a raw piece of stone could he be called a human being. This one act first enabled mankind to make tools. Once he could make tools, then he could make almost anything his imagination would allow him to do.

‘Making Arrows’ Part 6

A seemingly simple task such as making arrows could not have been performed without an extensive tool kit of items required to process the raw material into something useful. In a society where everything the people had was made from things they found in nature, even the tools required to make something had to be handmade before they could be used. Rabbit soon learned that he first had to make several tools before he could do the actual work of making arrows. He observed a variety of tools the other hunters made from stone, wood, leather and bone that enabled them to process other natural materials into useful items. He also learned that the tools possessed by each hunter were very personal things, to be used only by the person who made them, and not to be loaned to others. The reasons for this were very simple and practical. A tool such as a knife or scraper made of stone was made to fit the hands of the person who made it. When a person made a tool of stone, he or she carefully chipped the piece until it felt comfortable in the hand and to the fingers of the user. In a sense, the spirit of the person became a part of the tool.

Another reason tools were not loaned or shared was the fragile nature of stone tools. Any slight misuse would cause chipping, dulling or breakage. It was one thing to have to sharpen one’s own dull knife, but quite another to have to sharpen one dulled by another person.

Rabbit made some simple knives for various purposes. Some were simply large sharpened chips of obsidian or jasper. One fairly large knife he had made of basalt was hafted onto a piece of maple wood for a handle and tied securely with deer sinew. The bindings were covered with melted pine pitch. The pitch-covered binding was then treated over the fire until the turpentine evaporated away, leaving a hard, varnish-like coating. If not waterproofed in this way, the sinew would absorb blood and stretch. This would allow the stone knife to become separated from the handle.

Rabbit used a tanned rabbit skin hung from his belt to use as a pouch to hold the various tools he had made. This pouch was to become full before the arrow making project was completed.

After cutting the arrow shafts to the proper length, determined by the length of one’s arm, Rabbit used a chipped stone scraper to scrape the bark from each stem. Next he had to make a spokeshave tool. This was a flat piece of basalt with several perfect half-circle chips of different sizes chipped out along the edges. This tool was used to run up and down along each shaft in order to shave it to a uniform diameter.

Rabbit noticed every hunter had a rock that he used to smooth his arrow shafts. All were different and they were made from several types of abrasive material. Most had a distinct groove worn in them from sanding down the arrow shaft blanks. Some had holes drilled in them so the shafts were smoothed by running them in and out through the hole. Some were made from scoria, some from sandstone and most were made from volcanic pumice. Rabbit selected a fist-sized piece of pumice he had found and rubbed a groove in it with another rock. With some fine chipping to fit his hand, the young man made a perfectly suitable shaft smoother. Pumice was a volcanic stone full of small holes that make it resemble a sponge. Consisting of volcanic glass, it was extremely abrasive, making it ideal for such things as sanding down arrow shafts.

Coyote Skin steadily worked on his own tools and the arrowhead making process. Squealing Rabbit kept busy for several days skinning, shaping and smoothing the arrow shaft blanks he had gathered. Daily inspections and advice from Silent Buck kept the quality of the product at an acceptable level. Rabbit and Coyote soon learned the hunting shaman handed out his advice to all hunters whenever he saw that something was not being done according to tribal custom and tradition. They began to learn not to resent the critical eye of the shaman after they saw that he handed his criticism out in equal portions to everyone who needed it.

When at last the arrow shaft blanks were smoothed and shaped to the satisfaction of Silent Buck, it was time to straighten each shaft until it was straight as a sunbeam through the trees on a foggy morning. To accomplish this, Rabbit had to find a piece of steatite, a fine grained mineral similar to soapstone that would resist damage from heat and provide a slick surface for straightening the arrow shafts. Other types of stone would work, but Buck preferred the steatite for the smooth finish and feel the soapstone left on the arrows. Some of the other hunters told Rabbit where there was a hillside covered with the stone just a half day’s walk from the camp.

Since Rabbit and Coyote would both need a piece of the steatite, they both packed a lunch of dried rabbit meat and started out for the hill where the slick stones could be found. After they found the hill, the search began for just the right size and shape of the material for making a shaft straightener. The trick was to search until a piece was found that would not require much shaping in order to fit the hand perfectly. The boys had observed the other hunters using their arrow straightening stones. A perfect fit was essential to keep the heated stones from blistering their hands under the pressure required to straighten the shafts.

After considerable searching and rejection, the two made their selections and set out on the return trip to the camp. Each boy carried four or five pieces of the steatite back with them. About halfway back to the camp, they sat down on a fallen log to eat their lunch of dried rabbit meat. It was a glorious, peaceful summer afternoon. The boys were happy to be out in the forest, away from the watchful eye of their instructor. Chipmunks darted about and begged for scraps of food from the boys as they enjoyed the snack they had brought.

Suddenly, a big, brown bear came lumbering out of the bushes directly toward the boys. The hungry animal was obviously attracted by the smell of the meat. Startled, and caught totally by surprise with no weapons at hand, the boys screamed and threw their pieces of steatite at the equally surprised bear. One of the rocks smacked the bear’s head, just over his eye. It all happened so fast, neither of the boys knew which of them threw the rock that hit the animal. The bear took off running back into the forest, with the boys hollering and waving their arms behind him.

‘Making Arrows’ Part 5

Coyote could hardly speak after the scolding he had just received from the shaman. He knew it had been foolish to think he could make Buck believe he had made the points on his own. It had just been so difficult for him to chip the grainy black basalt, that it seemed easier to recycle the old points. Finally, he found words to explain himself to the angry old man.

“I am sorry for trying to deceive you,” said Coyote. “I know it was wrong to reshape the points made by the ancient ones, but I just could not make decent-looking arrowheads from this basalt rock we find here in the mountains. I see other hunters have made some beautiful points from this stuff, but I cannot seem to make it chip properly to make an acceptable point.”

The angry face of Silent Buck faded away to reveal the wise teacher he really was. He sat on the log bench with Coyote and explained to the shaken young man how to solve the problem at hand.

”You must never be afraid to come to me to ask about any problem you may be having,” said the shaman. “It is far better to ask a few questions than to anger me with your deceptions. Had you come to me sooner with this problem, I could have helped you with the stubborn black basalt.

“Though originally born of fire, much of the stone we use for making our tools has been buried in the ground for longer than we can imagine. It has absorbed moisture from the ground and spirits of the earth that make it difficult for us to work. The stone must first be treated by fire to remove these spirits and make the stone respond to our touch. When the old spirits are removed from the stone by the heat of our fire, then our own spirit can replace them as we shape the material for our own use. Remember, whenever you make something, whether it is a metate or a knife or an arrowhead, that item then contains a part of your spirit. A trace of your spirit will live on in that item long after you are gone.

“Be sure to use large nodules of stone at least the size of your fist to begin your work. Bury them in the sand beneath your evening campfire to heat them and drive off the old spirits, then slowly let them cool the next day. This treatment will make it possible to use a hammerstone to strike long, thin blades from the core stone. Select blades the correct size and shape for making the arrowheads or tools you need. You will find the heat treatment will make the chipping of the flakes much easier. When you start again to make your arrowheads, you will easily chip even the dull, black basalt. Remember this treatment for any stone you use for making tools. You have thought of yourself as a flintknapper, but you have not learned one of the basic rules of the craft – that of heat treating your material.”

For the next few days, the hunting camp settled into a routine familiar to the veteran hunters. An initial supply of meat had been taken from the mountains by the hunters, and was being processed for transport to the other members of the group down the river in the Truckee Meadows. A troop of women and older children made their way up the trail to the hunting camp to help process the game. 1bey would later transport it back to the village to feed the elderly people and children.

Freshly killed game had been hung to cure from racks made for the purpose, and much of the meat was being processed into pemmican and jerky to be dried and taken back to the main camp in sacks and baskets. Pemmican was made by using a mano and metate to pound together a mixture of deer or elk meat, animal fat and berries into a thick paste, then forming it into thin strips and allowing it to dry.


Spring was not the ideal time for taking game, since none of the animals were in a prime condition after surviving the long, frigid winter. Regardless of condition, it was necessary for the human hunters to take a few animals early in the year for their own survival after a long winter of short rations. The hunters took only the animals they needed to feed the people and to store for future needs. When sufficient game had been stored to satisfy this requirement, the hunters turned their interests to other pursuits, such as fishing and making new tools and weapons. Hunting merely for sport was never practiced, but the men were extremely proud and competitive about the success of their pursuits.

Rabbit and Coyote wanted to spend some time with the teenage girls who had come up with the other women from the valley, but under the watchful, scolding eye of Silent Buck, they had little opportunity for socializing. Buck sternly reminded the young men that they had an important task to perform, and there was not to be any socializing until the work at hand was completed. The discipline was almost more than the two could endure, but they knew Buck was not likely to tolerate much nonsense from either of them. One can only speculate what trysts may have occurred in the evening hours when Buck was asleep, and the two young men were free to visit the other lodges unsupervised.

The lull in hunting activity gave Rabbit and Coyote the opportunity to spend time with some of the other hunters engaged in making and repairing hunting weapons, including arrows. The experience of observing the techniques and craftsmanship of the more experienced hunters made it much easier for the two young men to apply these proven methods to their own work. At last, the two did not feel quite so alone in the task of making arrows. Rather than seeming to be punished, they now saw that this work was something all hunters had to not only perform, but to master in order to become expert hunters. Although Silent Buck had not yet allowed them to participate in the actual hunting, the boys could now interact with the other hunters in making the weapons for the hunt.

Squealing Rabbit made a few more trips along the mountain trails and gathered a new supply of service berry stems, being extremely selective to take only the most perfect specimens available. He wanted to avoid the rejection by Silent Buck he had experienced earlier. He brought the stems back to camp where he was able to watch some of the other men processing their stems into blank arrow shafts. He soon learned that there were several important steps required to convert a raw service berry branch into a suitable arrow shaft.

‘Making Arrows’ Part 4

The next morning, the two boys set about to find suitable materials and tools to complete the assignment given them by Silent Buck.

Squealing Rabbit headed out back along the trail that led back toward the Truckee Meadows. He knew there was a fine stand of service berry growing where the hunters often gathered material for making arrow shafts. He made a knife from a hafted piece of freshly chipped obsidian. This he used to cut the slender shoots of the plant until he had enough to make several dozen arrows. He knew he had to make enough shafts for both him and Coyote to use.

That afternoon, Rabbit returned to the lodge with his big bundle of unfinished arrow shaft material tied on his back with a buckskin thong. He found Coyote Skin seated on a pine log with a stump for a workbench, flintknapping projectile points for the arrows they were making. There was a considerable pile of black chips lying about where Coyote had been working. He was cursing and ranting something about the stone being impossible to chip. He was blaming the “crazy shaman” for screwing up his chances of becoming a hunter by insisting upon quality workmanship by the two boys. “I did not bring along any obsidian from the valley when we came,” he complained. “All I have here for making arrowheads is this damned dull, b!ack basalt. It chips like dried clay balls. I never had to make arrowheads out of anything but obsidian before. It chips so much easier than this crap.”

Rabbit sat down amid the grumbling from Coyote and began processing his arrow shafts. From the pile of basalt chips, he selected a nice piece that seemed to fit in his hand comfortably. He took another stone from the pile to use as a striking stone to chip a sharp edge on the scraper he was making. “I don’t see what your problem is chipping this material,” Rabbit remarked. “I don’t seem to have any trouble making a scraper to use for shaping my arrows.”

”It may be easy for you to strike off big chips to make a scraper,” replied Coyote. “But just try doing the fine, intricate chipping required to make an arrowhead. This stuff just seems to crumble away, and it doesn’t make nice, long, narrow flakes like obsidian does. I have a bag of old arrow points I found along the trails as we were hunting. I think I should sharpen them up and use them for our arrows. That would save me a lot of time, and I don’t think Silent Buck would know the difference.”

Coyote went back to the cedar bark lodge where his belongings were stored. Later he returned with a leather pouch full of stone points and dumped them out on the stump where he was working. He sorted through the multi-colored chips and set some aside to be sharpened. The crafty Coyote placed a thick piece of leather on his knee and a leather pad on the palm of his left hand to more easily grip the tiny stone points. With a short tine from a deer horn, he chipped tiny flakes from the edges of the old arrowheads, using his leather covered knee as a working platform.

Coyote had found points made from several different types of stone including obsidian, basalt, agate, jasper, quartz and petrified wood. Some were of types no longer made by any of the tribes in the region, and were probably thousands of years old. The young man tried to shape each piece to resemble the traditional points used by the seasoned hunters of his tribe. He noticed the material often chipped much easier than the basalt he had been using earlier. Even the old points made from basalt seemed easier to chip than the material he had been using.

Late in the day, Silent Buck came by to check on the progress of the two craftsmen. He first came to Rabbit to examine the pile of arrow shaft blanks the boy had gathered. The hunting shaman spent considerable time picking up each piece and giving it a close examination. Those he thought were suitable material for making an arrow, he tossed into a small pile at the feet of Squealing Rabbit. Those he rejected, he tossed into the pile of firewood alongside the evening campfire. The pile of rejects grew twice as fast as the pile of acceptable blanks.

With each rejected shaft, Buck would comment, “Too many knots.” or, “Too thin.” or, “Too much insect damage.” or, ”Too crooked.” or some other reason known only to him.

Rabbit felt as rejected as the shafts accumulating on the pile of firewood. He thought each of the pieces he had cut would have made a good arrow. After seeing the many reasons for rejection, he realized that only perfect, unblemished pieces of wood were suitable for making quality arrows. From the number of pieces being discarded, he knew there were not going to be enough left to make two quivers full of arrows. Tomorrow would be another day of gathering material to make the arrow shafts the two young hunters would need.

Silent Buck then went to the area where Coyote Skin was chipping and shaping the old projectile points he had found. The re-worked points were beginning to resemble those the hunters of the tribe used on their arrows. “How is the arrowhead making going?” the shaman asked.

“I think I have enough for us to make our two quivers full of arrows,” replied Coyote. “I can make arrowheads as good as any man in camp. Just look at the fine specimens I have made.”

Buck picked up the handful of the multi-colored, re-sharpened points. Coyote had spent the entire day chipping and shaping them to resemble as closely as he could the traditional points used by the tribal hunters. The grizzled old shaman’s face changed to an angry snarl as he examined the handful of re-worked chips. Buck looked around on the ground until he saw a large stone metate near one of the lodges. He placed the handful of points in the stone grinding bowl. He then used a fist-sized mano to smash the re-sharpened arrowheads into a powdery mass of particles, none any larger than a grain of sand. The angry shaman stomped up to the startled Coyote and growled his words as an angry animal would do if it could talk.

“This is the second time you have lied to me about your work! I must warn you there will never be another time. If you ever try to deceive me again about anything you are doing, I will see that you never hunt anything bigger than berries with the women and children.

“One thing our people never do is pick up or use tools or arrowheads made by people who lived here before us. The spirit of the people who made those things is still in the stone from which the things were made. You are disturbing the spirits of those people when you use their tools. You must never again touch things left behind by the ancient ones. More importantly, you must never try to deceive me again with your lame attempts to make me think you have done something you did not do. Now, tell me why you did not make your own arrow points, rather than try to modify ones made by someone else?”