Crafting Ancient Tradition

Pawnee craftsman John Knifechief keeps his tribe’s warrior traditions alive.

John Knifechief has embraced traditions of his ancestors by crafting traditional native tools. Photo by Brandon Scott.

John Knifechief has embraced traditions of his ancestors by crafting traditional native tools. Photo by Brandon Scott.

Six years ago, Chouteau resident John Knifechief’s life changed forever.

While riding his motorcycle on a rainy day, Knifechief was hit head-on by a driver who swerved into his lane. The accident took a grim toll. Knifechief’s foot had to be reattached by surgeons, and he spent almost eight months in the care of his brother, Charles. Unable to work to this day, the single dad says he turned to his past to secure his and his then-5-year-old son’s futures.

“My dad was a farmer in Pawnee, Oklahoma, and when he would plow the fields, I would pick up the arrowheads and flint and watch him make bows and arrows,” the full-blood member of the Pawnee Tribe says. “When the accident happened, I went back to my dad’s old teachings. That’s how I pay the bills and raise my son.”

In addition to bows and arrows, Knifechief creates other traditional Pawnee tools and weapons. Using such materials as deer buckhorn, wild turkey feathers, deer and calf sinew and flint collected from around the region, the artist knows the history and tradition behind each handmade object.

“When the young men of the tribe first became warriors, they would use these to hunt,” he says of his four-foot-long buffalo arrows. In addition to the arrows and bows, he also makes such tools as buffalo knives and spears, hide scrapers, tomahawks and war clubs and shields.

Knifechief says there are many personally rewarding aspects of his work, including teaching the craft to others, including his son.

“I’m the only one left in my tribe to carry on the handmade tradition of bows and arrows,” he says. “I get to honor my father…I think this is a dying art, and I’m happy and honored to carry on the tradition of bow- and arrow-making.”



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