Lakota Spiritual Guidance From The Bow And Arrow

Most Americans think of the bow and arrow as a tool for hunting or sports. But writer and craftsman Joseph Marshall III has always seen the bow and arrow as a source of spiritual guidance. For Native American Heritage Month, host Michel Martin speaks with Marshall about his book The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and, this being Native American Heritage Month, we thought this might be a good time to hear more about spiritual traditions and, today, we're focusing on the Lakota people.

Now, we all know the bow and arrow. It's an ancient tool for hunting and for sports, but writer and craftsman Joseph Marshall III says the bow and arrow is also a tool for inspiration and spiritual guidance. He writes about the lessons he says he's gained and we can all gain from the bow and arrow in his latest book, "The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage: Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow." And Joseph Marshall III joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOSEPH MARSHALL III: Well, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You are an enrolled member of the Sicangu-Lakota, or the Rosebud Sioux, and you grew up on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, which is in South Dakota.

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: And you talked about how, when you were about five years old, your grandfather took you to an ash wood tree to make your first bow. And could you talk a little...

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...bit about that?

MARSHALL: Well, it was after he showed me the one he had and, of course, you know, little boys being little boys, I wanted my own and I pestered him, so we had to go through the whole process of harvesting the wood and helping to cure it and so forth. And we harvested it in the middle of winter, after the new moon, and we went out behind our house. There was a gully and this was on the plateau on the northern part of the Rosebud Reservation. I think the nearest neighbor was, like, seven miles away.

So we took a lantern and went down into the gully and he asked me to leave an offering. We did a tobacco bundle and we left it and then we cut down the tree. We trimmed it and we took it back to our house and then, thereafter, we went through the process of peeling the bark, splitting it, taking all the steps that were necessary to finally make a bow that was my own.

MARTIN: And talk a little bit about how it was that you came to understand that this would always be a part of your life.

MARSHALL: You know, it had to do with the stories that all of my grandparents told about what it was like in the past and how people procured what they needed to live and then, of course, the role of the male as a hunter and a warrior and the main weapon of the hunter and a warrior was the bow and arrow. And, as I grew older, I realized that the bow and arrows were a metaphor for life and it was that, as I grew older, that I latched onto and since that moment when, you know, I held my first bow in my hands and I took that first shot that I knew that they would be a part of my life and they still are.

MARTIN: Well, there are so many obviously wonderful lessons to be learned, which is why you wrote a whole book about it, but if you could just talk about some of them, one is that you talked about what your grandmother taught you about how the bow comes from the sliver of the moon.

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: And the arrow from the rays of the sun. Talk more about that.

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

MARSHALL: Well, it means that we are connected in many, many ways to the environment around us, whether it's up in the sky or on the land, in the water or wherever. And I was curious about how our people had come up with a bow to begin with and it was her reply that really intrigued me and she said the moon gave us the bow and we had to wait until that cycle of the month when that new moon was just a sliver in the sky and then she said, there's the bow. And, because the moon is a woman, she gave us the bow and, if you do look at that thinnest sliver of a new moon, you'll see that it's thinnest on the ends and it tapers from outward, the middle of that sliver to each end. And that is the configuration of the Lakota bow and, interestingly enough, that design, that configuration - that can withstand the drawing of that piece of wood time and time again. It's a unique engineering marvel, if you will.

And then it was my grandfather who said that the arrows came from the sun and he pointed out through a grove of trees late in the day and you can see the sun's rays were very, very straight. And he said, those are the arrows and your arrows have to be as straight as the arrows of the sun.

So, the sun being a male, the arrows are male and, of course, the moon being a woman, the bow is female, so in that sense, they fulfill that balance that we see in life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with author Joseph Marshall, III. We're talking about his latest book, "The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage."

I want to talk more broadly about your purpose and the purpose in writing this book. You write a lot about strength and resilience. Why are those two themes so important and so central to your work?

MARSHALL: Because strength and resilience are at the core of who we are as Lakota people and, individually, I look at my grandparents and they are those same kinds of things. They are strong, they're resilient, they have all the values that their parents taught them and that they turned around and taught to my parents and so forth, so it's a passing of one generation to the next, those values that make us who we are.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, do you mind if I ask you about one of your previous books, "Keep Going?" Because, in that book, you have a beautiful poem from a grandfather to his grandson. Would you mind reading it for us?

MARSHALL: Oh, not at all. A young man asked his grandfather why life had to be so difficult sometimes. This was the old man's reply. Grandfather says this. In life, there is sadness as well as joy, losing as well as winning, falling as well as standing, hunger as well as plenty, badness as well as goodness. I do not say this to make you despair, but to teach you reality. Life is a journey sometimes walked in light, sometimes in shadow. Grandfather says this. Keep going.

MARTIN: Thank you for that.

MARSHALL: You're welcome. Glad you like it.

MARTIN: You know, that leads me to a question that you grapple with in your latest book that we are talking about and it is this question of whether subsequent generations - how they see themselves in relation to earlier generations.

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: And I just wanted to read one sentence from the book, if you don't mind, where you say...

MARSHALL: OK. Sure.

MARTIN: We are no better or worse than our ancestors, but we have been, nonetheless, transformed by the bowmaker, our interaction with the newcomers who came and stayed. What lesson would you like people to draw from that?

MARSHALL: Well, you know, life is change. We learn that early on. At least, I did. And we either give in, we roll over and lay in a whimpering heap or we try to adapt to the situation and maintain a core of who we are. The Lakota society, Lakota culture of the past, was based on a lot of values, a lot of norms, a lot of beliefs and perhaps we've lost some of those, but not all of them and, because of that, we have maintained a core of our cultural identity and that's really what that argument is all about.

MARTIN: But you were raised on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. In fact, Lakota was your first language...

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...as I understand it. OK. But what about for people who did not have that experience? Because, as I mentioned earlier, in addition to being a writer, a full time writer, you are also a noted craftsperson in the craft of archery and of making the tools of archery. Right? But what about people who don't have a physical connection to the traditions?

MARSHALL: Right, right. I don't think a physical connection is absolutely necessary. I make bows and arrows and I shoot them every day, but I'm not a singer and I'm not a dancer. I like to go to pow-wows and watch people put on their regalia and dance and perform some social dances and special dances and those kind of things. I don't do that, but that doesn't make me less of a Lakota, so conversely, even though people don't have that physical connection, as you say, to the culture, it doesn't mean that they are not connected to the culture. There are all kinds of ways to be connected and that's to know who you are and know who your parents are and know who your grandparents are, know where you came from. All of those are ways to keep that connection strong.

MARTIN: Joseph Marshall III is the author of "The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage: Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow." He's the author of a number of works of nonfiction, novels, short stories and screenplays. He also is, as we mentioned, a noted craftsman and he joined us from member station KSFR in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Joseph Marshall, III, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MARSHALL: Thank you for having me on your program.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage

Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow

by Joseph M. III Marshall

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Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow
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