Flintknapping as a Cultural and Spiritual journey

This article first appeared in the magazine Indian Country in summer 2017.
A Western Shoshone  grandfather and grandson sit companionably, side by side, in canvas camp chairs. They are in a small valley buttressed by rolling hills covered with golden grasses and gray-green sagebrush. In the palm of the left hand, each holds a piece of rough black stone resting on a small leather pad and, in the right, a length of deer antler. 

More tribal members are camped around them, watching the pair work, chatting, cooking and preparing a sweat lodge. A jackrabbit hops by: “Breakfast,” someone says. Mule deer dash away toward distant mountains.

The valley is in the Tosawihi Complex, a dry, rugged landscape that covers scores of square miles in what is now northern Nevada. It is the heart of the traditional Western Shoshone homeland, where they have camped, hunted, gathered and participated in ceremonies for millennia. Northern Paiutes and members of other tribes revere the area as well.

The grandfather, Joseph Holley, shown above, is a councilman and former chairman of the Battle Mountain Band of Te-Moak Western Shoshone. He is teaching seven-year-old Julius Holley Jr. flintknapping, which refers to shaping stone into useful objects. Since prehistoric times, knappers worldwide have turned out arrow- and spear-heads (or points), blades, scrapers, drills and other items. After flintlock guns were invented in the 1500s, gunflints were produced to create the spark that ignited the gunpowder.

The lessons Julius will learn about his people’s knapping tradition are spiritual and cultural as well as artistic. Because he is a beginner, he and his grandfather are working with obsidian. The shiny black stone is more brittle and easier to shape than the white flint, or chert, that is so plentiful in this landscape. Chert’s extreme hardness made it their ancestors’ favorite for points and other implements, but that also means it is best handled by experienced makers. And, because obsidian is not available in Tosawihi, the flakes they leave behind will not be mistaken for ancient workings. Additional materials knappers may use include chalcedony, quartzite, jasper and glass.

After using hard, fist-sized hammerstones to rough out their obsidian chunks, grandfather and grandson use deer-antler pieces to shape them further. They first remove larger sections with heavier taps, called percussion flaking. They then chip off ever-smaller fragments with a technique called pressure flaking, in which they press on the piece rather than strike it.

The bone tools’ relative softness means they “grab” the stone, giving the maker a purchase on it, and tend not to splinter the piece. Finished arrowheads and larger spear points can be fastened to shafts with thread-like deer sinew or thin strips of rawhide (about the width of a shoelace), respectively.

After Joseph Holley finishes his arrowhead, he makes a fishhook and one more arrowhead—which snaps. “As a child, when I sat flintknapping with my dad, he would counsel patience,” he recalls. “As you work a piece of stone, you learn its characteristics, its hard places and weak places. You treat it with respect, and prayer goes into every stroke.”

The attention to detail means an experienced flintknapper can find an old arrowhead and read the intentions of the ancestral maker, who may have been male or female, according to Holley. “I can see what the person was thinking by the way the stone is fractured, the choices made, the final form, the desire for perfection,” he says.

Creating points was traditionally altruistic and community-oriented as well as meditative, according to Holley’s late father, the celebrated Western Shoshone activist Glen Holley. “He told me a point might save your life, feed you or clothe you. Or you might store it away in a cache somewhere in the landscape to save for another time. But someone else finds it, and it saves his life or feeds and clothes his family.”

Knappers usually work outside, so they are not exposed to stone dust in an enclosed area. Native flintknappers take this one step further. It’s all about context, according to Joseph Holley: “When Western Shoshone children work stone here at Tosawihi, they can see, let’s say, an old dwelling off to one side, a stream where ceremonies took place and flakes chipped off by ancestors when they worked stone. The children can then look at our modern camp and see that it reflects the old one, with places to sleep, cook, gather, work and pray. They understand that they are part of a long and ongoing story.”

Later, Joseph, Julius Jr. and another grandson, Wanbli, take a walk around Tosawihi. The children play in ancient rock shelters and find arrowheads and scatters of flakes—missives from a past that is very much a part of their present. Without being told, the children leave the items exactly where they found them, ensuring that future generations will know that they, too, are part of the story.

C. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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