Craftsman: Traditional bow teaches patience

By Rick Abasta
Special to the Times


Alex Lee Begay, 28, of Gamerco, New Mexico, was walking in downtown Gallup over eight years ago and saw a bow on display in one of the stores.

Special to the Times | Rick Abasta
After nine months, the final product is a traditional Navajo bow and arrow.

“The sign said, ‘Navajo bow.’ It looked kind of phony,” he said. “It had fringes and was covered in dog hair. The arrows looked suspicious.”

Out of curiosity, he visited the Navajo Nation Museum and met with curator Clarenda Begay to ask about Navajo bows. She showed him bows in the possession of the museum. According to Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, there are a couple of bows on display that were made in the 1960s and are replicas of older bows. “I would say its pragmatic use was primarily for hunting, and defense second,” he said. “Sinew from the backbones of deer and other animals was glued to the backs of the bows to add strength and elasticity for more power.”

He added that Navajo bows tended to be shorter than those used by Eastern tribes due to the lack of wood and the fact that Navajos generally hunted on horseback and needed something small and maneuverable.

The bows on display at the museum propelled Begay on a quest. “When I realized the bow on display in Gallup wasn’t a Navajo bow, I was on a mission to make a real one,” he said. “That’s what made me start making bows.” What followed was a trial-and-error period that resulted in at least 90 broken bows.

With each bow he broke, Begay learned from his mistakes. He experimented with balancing, curing, and different types of wood. “My first bow was a juniper bow,” Begay said. “I was learning my technique of extracting a stave, a bow that is not shaped, from the juniper.” Today he fashions traditional Navajo bows from trees like oak, mountain mahogany, yellow mahogany, orange Osage, black locust, red cedar and others.

Bow 3.jpg Special to the Times | Rick Abasta After nine months, the final product is a traditional Navajo bow and arrow.

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Categories: Culture