The Lost Art of Traditional Bow Hunting
As interest in hunting with a bow and arrow has risen, much of the gear has gone high-tech. Meanwhile, a small band of purists like Gabriel Miossi have turned to a traditional Native American weapon: the stick bow.
By MEGHAN WARD
It’s 4 a.m. on a chilly August morning, and Gabriel Miossi is sitting in the dirt behind some dry brush, trying not to fall asleep. Even though there are still two more hours of darkness, Miossi is wearing camo clothing that’s been stored in an airtight float bag filled with black sage for months to disguise his human smell. He didn’t use soap or shampoo when he showered last night, and he has no food or drinks with him because those, too, have scents. Next to him are a simple bow made from a branch with a bowstring of stinging nettle, two arrows, and a knife.
While waiting for the deer to emerge from its bed, Miossi takes careful note of any shifts in the wind. At 4:20, the deer walks within 10 yards of him.
For the last two days, Miossi has been following, or “patterning,” a deer that he first spotted on a hillside while driving his Jeep through his family’s 1400-acre ranch, which stretches across brown, grassy hills adjacent to Highway 101 near the California coast. The deer descended into a canyon, so Miossi did, too, to see where it bedded down. The next day, returning to the same spot, he set up a blind by clearing the ground and rearranging some branches and brush about 15 yards uphill.
While waiting for the deer to emerge from its bed, Miossi takes careful note of any shifts in the wind. At 4:20, the deer walks within 10 yards of him. He quickly draws and shoots, sending a homemade arrow through the deer’s vital organs. To my surprise, he lets the deer run off, then settles back down to wait. If he chases it, the deer will dash off and he may never find it. But if he’s patient and quiet, it will walk a mere 40 to 50 yards, and then lie down.
Following the trail of blood and broken branches down into the canyon, Miossi soon finds the deer, now dead, and stashes his unneeded backup arrow in his quiver. (He brings only two for these hunts. “If you miss both shots,” he says, “you’re kind of done anyway.”) Later in the day, he will dress the animal—first hanging it to bleed it, then skinning it, and finally cutting it into steaks, jerky, sausage, you name it, that he and his wife, Dana, will eat throughout the year. He’ll even use the tendons to make hide glue, which he’ll use to fashion more bows and arrows for future hunts.
Miossi’s property, called La Cuesta Ranch, functions as both a working ranch, with 85 Angus cattle, and a stunning wedding venue just minutes from the posh restaurants and shops of San Luis Obispo. When my family and I pull into the property on a Friday night, Miossi, now 63, is returning from a party in jeans and hiking shoes, his long, black ringlets pulled back into a loose ponytail. Visualize Metallica’s Kirk Hammett with a silver goatee and horn-rimmed glasses, and you’ll have a pretty good picture. As I will come to learn during our day together, Miossi is a bit asynchronous. At one moment, he’s a fast-talking, garrulous wedding planner; at another, he’s a thoughtful artisan obsessing about traditional craftsmanship. Miossi may hunt a deer with a stick and a string, but he’s never without his Bluetooth headset.
Miossi pulls a curved branch of elderberry that’s been drying for a year off a shelf in his workshop and sets it on a worktable. He removes the bark with a flake of obsidian, then smooths the wood with bone.
Miossi accompanies us down a dirt road that runs between an uneven brown picket fence, past a grassy meadow dotted with old farm equipment, to a restored barn. Lights strung between the barn and several trees illuminate an expansive outdoor area where, in pre-Covid times, several hundred guests could be found dining most Saturday nights. My husband and two young children pitch our tent under a chandelier hanging from a large sycamore near the bathrooms and say goodnight.
In the morning, when we go look for Miossi, we find him in his open-air workshop, where he is laying out bows and arrows while arranging a ranch tour for prospective wedding clients through his headset. (In 2010, at Miossi’s suggestion, his family turned part of the ranch into this wedding venue, and these rentals have been providing extra income ever since.) Racks of antlers from Miossi’s hunts hang over the entryway. Wires and chains and compressors and anvils and myriad tools I can’t identify are filed neatly on hooks and shelves and in buckets on the floor.
While Miossi grew up in a nearby small town (Shell Beach), he spent much of his childhood roaming the ranch where he now lives. He began hunting with guns at age 8, then arrows at 18, and has continued using both to this day. During his wanderings, Miossi became fascinated by the discovery of numerous artifacts and arrowheads on the ranch, including ancient paintings located halfway up a 240-foot rock formation next to his house. He soon devoted himself to learning everything he could about the history of the Chumash, the native people who inhabited the Santa Barbara coast for at least 13,000 years.
The population of the Chumash, once estimated to have stood at around 300,000, today numbers only about 5,000. Most of those who remain live on the Santa Ynez reservation, which is not far from Miossi’s ranch. Over the years, Miossi made a few attempts to learn what he could from the tribe, but he says he was unable to find members who were interested in working with him. [For a brief summary of what the Santa Ynez tribe has been doing to preserve its bow-making customs, please see our sidebar, “The Living Traditions of the Chumash Tribe”.]
During his explorations, Miossi found a few books on bow-hunting traditions, but the information seemed inaccurate. (“It just didn’t work,” he says.) So he kept hunting with a rifle, until he attended an Earth Day festival in the early 1990s. There, he saw a man start a fire with two sticks. The man, Joe Debill, turned out to be a devoted student of stick-bow traditions from a variety of pre-industrial societies. Miossi immediately saw an opportunity for a mentor, so he invited Debill to come stay at his ranch. After Debill taught him how to make a traditional stick bow, his own arrows, and obsidian arrowheads, Miossi began attending Rabbit Stick and Winter Count, gatherings where people share skills learned from indigenous cultures.
Over the years, Miossi learned enough to make stick-bow hunting something of a family pursuit. Today, his wife bow-hunts, too, and once placed third in the state of California in a women’s competition; they have two daughters in their late twenties, one of whom holds the distinction of having tracked and shot her own deer.
Once off the phone with the wedding clients, Miossi pulls a curved branch of elderberry that’s been drying for a year off a shelf in his workshop and sets it on an outdoor worktable. It’s a warm May afternoon, and the scent of sagebrush fills the air. Miossi shows us how to remove the bark with a drawknife, then smooth the wood with a spokeshave, a sharp hand tool used to plane wood. When doing a traditional archery demonstration, he uses a flake of obsidian instead of a drawknife and a bone instead of a spokeshave, but we have just one day with him before he heads to Vegas for vacation so we’re resorting to more modern hand tools.
After its basic shape has been created, Miossi “tillers” the bow—a process that involves removing wood shred by shred from either or both of the bow’s two ends, to allow the bow to draw evenly and with the desired amount of pull. He also sands the bow with sharkskin agave leaves, then rubs it with bear fat to prevent it from cracking. Finally, to give the bow the strength of modern-day fiberglass, he will glue strands of sinew onto the back with his homemade hide glue. After the sinew dries for a week, Miossi waterproofs the bow with a layer of rattlesnake skin, which will take another two days. At the end of this long process, he will have a stick bow much like the ones the Chumash and other tribes (such as the Salinan) used to hunt deer and rabbit along the California coast for thousands of years.
Stick bows tend to appeal to people who are interested in Native American culture, enjoy crafting their own bows, or want the challenge of shooting a pre-modern bow. A stick bow is smaller and lighter than the classic D-shaped longbow used by medieval English archers, and it requires a great deal more skill to shoot. Most modern archers prefer what’s called a recurve, which is a bow that curves away from the archer at the tips. (The recurve shape directs more power into the arrow, making the bow shoot farther and faster than a longbow or a stick bow.) One step further into the modern, followed by those who embrace the latest technology, is what’s called a compound bow—a bizarre rig that looks a lot like a Rube Goldberg machines. Compound bows are full of wheels, hinges, and pulleys, even a trigger, and they shoot with unmatched power, speed, and accuracy. Not surprisingly, they cost several times the price of a recurve.
Miossi owns 80 different bows and uses them all. He can shoot a soda can with a compound bow at 80 yards with almost 100 percent accuracy, but he says that’s no fun. “If you kill a deer with a compound bow, kudos to you,” he says. “If you kill it with a stick bow, you da man.”
The sun has now risen high in the sky, and the air is heating up as we watch Miossi string a bow. After stripping the stinging nettles off some long stems, which have been drying for a year, he pulls the stems apart and braids them into a string. He weaves a loop into one end, hooks it into a notch at the tip of the bow, then pulls the string tight around a notch at the bow’s other tip and knots it.
“I make my own everything,” he says, “knives, bows, arrows, strings. I just got through making a Mongolian horse bow out of PVC pipe and it shoots very well. It’s amazing what’s been done over the years in different countries. Taking the horns off of rams and steaming them to make them straight, they could make a 130- to 140-pound bow.”
I’m itching to try out this bow, but first we need an arrow. We have no interest in hunting—in fact, my husband is vegan—but back home in Berkeley, we all own bows and arrows that we regularly take to a local archery range to shoot at targets. My husband and children shoot compound bows, but I prefer a recurve. It’s lighter, and it forces you to shoot more intuitively, which I like.
Miossi soon pulls a branch of mule fat, a versatile shrub with long, straight stalks, out of a can on his workbench and cuts it to about 18 inches. Then he sharpens a flake of obsidian with a piece of chert and uses that to cut turkey feathers into “fletches”—the feathers at an arrow’s end, which stabilize it and make it shoot straight. Picking up another piece of obsidian, he shapes and serrates it into an arrowhead. Because obsidian is so strong, and so sharp when fractured into an edge, it makes for ideal tools and arrowheads. But it isn’t native to the central coast of California. In order to get it, Miossi says, the Chumash had to trade with the Miwok and other tribes farther north, exchanging hematite, abalone, clam shell beads, and other ocean-borne items for obsidian, as well as baskets. “Obsidian was a status symbol,” he says. “Only the more powerful Chumash had it.”
“I don’t have any degrees, I just like figuring out how to do something until I know how to do it,” Miossi says. “You do that for long enough, there’s not much you can’t do.”
The arrow complete, we’re ready to shoot. Miossi grabs a few more handmade arrows, which he keeps in a stand, and we head into the meadow, where a paper target is pinned to a foam block. The stick bow is considerably more difficult to shoot than my recurve. It’s lightweight and flimsy, and I feel like I have no control over where my arrow will land. My husband shoots his into the ravine. We spend 10 minutes looking for it but can’t find it. Miossi shrugs. “Don’t worry about it.”
Despite a rising interest in archery, the traditional archery community remains quite small, and only for the highly committed. “Shooting with a stick, you have to be really close and really good,” Miossi says. “Very, very few hunt with it. It takes you so long to find an animal and so long to get close to it, and then if you miss?”
So what kind of people does this community draw? “You have the full-on naturalist who would never dream of shooting a compound bow, who loves the historical aspect of it,” Miossi says. “And the other people who started with a compound, accomplished their goal and said, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do this with a recurve.’ Then they do that and think, ‘Okay, now I’m going to step it up a bit and shoot with a stick bow.’”
For Gary S. Davis, a well-known archer from Michigan, it’s all about the challenge. “I shot a compound bow for about seven years and it’s a bunch of machinery,” he says. “If a deer walked within a certain distance, I ate it. Where’s the challenge?”
Back in the 1980s, a group of Davis’s hunter friends decided to switch to longbows. Six months later, Davis was the only one still shooting one. Six months after that, at the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational, he was introduced to a kind of ultra stick bow called a selfbow. “It’s not a selfbow because you make it yourself, [it’s] because it’s a piece of wood that’s not dependent on anything but itself,” Davis says. “It’s literally a stick with a string on it.” While the stick bows Miossi shoots are 40 to 50 inches long, Davis’s selfbows run to 72 inches. This makes them so heavy that bowyers don’t typically back selfbows with sinew, which would only add more weight.
“In the East, [indigenous tribes] made much longer selfbows because they were on foot and had to shoot much greater distances,” Davis says. “When the Dakota were pushed out West and started hunting on horses, they didn’t need longbows anymore.” But shorter bows aren’t as powerful, so the Native Americans out West sinew-backed them to make them stronger.
Like most traditional archers, Davis reads Primitive Archer magazine, which has been around for 28 years and is read by 100,000 hunters. (Archers generally refer to indigenous bows as “primitive.” While the term is often considered pejorative, it’s still embedded in the vernacular of traditional archery’s aficionados.) The magazine’s publisher, Monroe Luther, likes to compare the sport to fishing.
“Most people start fishing with bait, then they progress to lures, and at the top end they go to fly fishing, where you’re into matching the flies and that sort of thing,” Luther told me. “Archery, people start with compound bows. The next step is buying manufactured bows, and primitive is for people who are into the craft of archery, making the bows, the fletching, the tillering. It’s really a craft world.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Monroe says most of his readers are men who live in small- and medium-sized towns. “Many people never hunt with them, they just want to make the bows,” he says. “To them it’s very much a craft, a pleasure and experience to build a bow. Some even make their own arrows and quivers. And they get into the history because for all those thousands of years, archery was it.”
While gunpowder dates back to 9th-century China, the use of archery for hunting predates recorded history; it was also the primary method of warfare for most ancient civilizations. In fact, the Mongolian horse bow, like the one Miossi recreated out of PVC pipe, is what Genghis Khan used to conquer most of Asia and Eastern Europe during the 13th century. Of course, Genghis Khan didn’t use PVC pipe, but the composite horn and bamboo he used, backed with sinew, was so strong it was said to shoot more than 500 meters.
“It took five years to make them and two of them to string a bow,” Davis says, “but once it was strung, they would leave it strung for months at a time.” Davis says. “[The Mongolians] would shoot half a mile to terrorize people and they would capitulate because of [Khan’s] reputation.”
It wasn’t until the 1500s that gunpowder replaced the bow and arrow as the weapon of choice for Europeans. Then, in the late 1700s, archery experienced a fashionable comeback among the aristocracy of England, who joined archery societies and hosted extravagant social events around the sport. A century later, in 1911, indigenous archery saw a revival in the United States when Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi people, descended from the foothills of Northern California after living isolated from Euro-American culture for most of his life. His doctor, Saxton Pope, studied Ishi’s archery skills and popularized them in the book “Hunting with the Bow & Arrow.” The Pope and Young Club, which advocates heritage, fair-chase hunting, and conservation, was named after him and another famous archer, Pope’s friend Arthur Young.
At La Cuesta Ranch, after we exhaust ourselves target shooting, we return to Miossi’s workshop, where replicas of the kinds of objects the Chumash once used—flutes, arrows, feathers, pump drills, furs, tools made out of bone and obsidian—are displayed on two long outdoor tables. My children test out the pump drills, boring into a plank of wood. They ask if we can take a bow home.
“You want a bow, you have to make it,” Miossi tells them. “Go get some sticks.” He points them toward some toyon shrubs and they head off to search. “Most people say, ‘Oh, I’ve never done that before. I don’t know how to do it,’” he says. “I don’t have any degrees, I just like figuring out how to do something until I know how to do it, and then I’m done. You do that for long enough, there’s not much you can’t do.”
Miossi has certainly walked his talk on this front. When he was 16, working at a local sign shop, a customer walked in one day and asked if he could get a design sandblasted onto a glass door. The owner said yes and looked at Miossi, so Miossi taught himself how to sandblast. A year later, after his father bought him a compressor, he quit his job to sandblast full time, and at one point was making $7,000 to $10,000 a weekend with his intricate designs. He also taught himself how to make stained-glass windows for churches, and glass mosaics. That’s when he wasn’t making masks, drums, or didgeridoos, which he sold at music festivals for 5 years before he taught himself how to weld and make furniture. “I don’t watch TV, so I have all kinds of time to make shit,” he says.
For a parting gift as our little workshop wraps up, Miossi whips up a “survival bow” out of the twigs the kids have collected. “This is if you want to eat tonight,” he says. For this bow, to save time, he binds the branches with plastic zip ties, then strings them with one of the stinging-nettle stalks we braided earlier. It won’t kill a deer, but if we got lost in the woods, it could, luck permitting, net us a rabbit or a squirrel.
Miossi’s quickie approach to the bow, which of course depended on the invention of plastic, led me to ask his opinion of the survivalist practices popularized in film and television. Miossi chuckles. “The first thing they think about is how to do things like primitive cultures did, which is asinine because why would you do something with two rocks when you have batteries and transistors?” he says. “If the apocalypse comes, there’s no way I’d take a bow. I’d take my .22 with a silencer on the end of it.”
Maybe that’s what survival, and invention, are all about. You do whatever you can with whatever materials are available to you. That’s what people have done throughout time. For the Chumash, at some point in their hunting history, a stick bow was undoubtedly state of the art.