“We’ll keep going, we got to keep this alive.” – John Brown
MOUNDS, Okla.- The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Cultural Center Archive department hosted a longbow making class for students in grades nine-12 grade. The class was provided on Aug. 19 and 20.
MCN Special Projects Coordinator John Brown (Mvskoke/Euchee), otherwise known as “John John” demonstrated and helped students in the class. “I do a lot of cultural teaching such as ball sticks, bows, arrows, blowguns, bow darts, dugout canoes and things like that,” Brown said.
Brown typically does most of the work involved with the class himself, however it is not a job he performs by himself. He also receives help from his younger brother, and Britteny Cuevas. (Mvskoke). Brown mentioned how grateful he is to have Cuevas, and her enthusiasm to learn more about the craft. According to Brown, Cuevas is great with children because she is able to communicate with them on their level.
Brown mentioned having a smaller class size is more beneficial for him because he is able to spend more quality time with each student. Larger class sizes make it more difficult to do so.
He hopes these students will gain an understanding of Mvskoke culture when they attend this class.
Brown is currently finding ideas to effectively engage students, and inspire further interest in the craft. He would like them to come back more often to learn about other traditional creations.
Bows through the Ages
Brown mentioned when choosing to do certain activities, he looks into the season. Since students are going back to school in August, there will typically not be as much participation due to other extra-curricular activities provided during the semester.
Class sizes vary between the events hosted by the department. Previous classes hosted by Mvhayv Mike Berryhill were extremely popular. Currently, Brown’s classes have seen class sizes of 20-30 students in attendance.
“When they started coming out with compound bows everybody went to that and now people hunt with crossbows, more people are going to that so nobody wants to do traditional bows but we are still trying,” Brown said. “We’ll keep going, we got to keep this alive.”
Brown is also looking for a future apprentice to take over these duties some day. “I find a lot of people that want to make a bow but they don’t want to make bows, there’s a difference,” Brown said. “I’m looking for somebody kind of like me that they see it and want to do more, that’s where you are going to find that teacher, somebody that wants to do it that has the heart because it’s time consuming and it’s a commitment.”
Brown has been asked in the past how he has done a great job with the creations he has made so far.
“I’ve been blessed, I really have. I truly believe the Creator gave me that gift in order to pass it on, so this stuff will never go away, that’s the way I look at it and that’s the way I hold onto it,” Brown said.
Brown has two different ways of teaching; traditional ball sticks, or a traditional bow. Some have complained his methods are not traditional because he uses modern equipment like chainsaws.
“People will say ‘did it come with a chainsaw? That’s not traditional. We did not have that back then.’ We beg to differ, if our ancestors would have a chainsaw I promise they would use that back then,” Brown said. “The traditional part doesn’t have to do with anything that you used to make that bow, it’s certain things you follow, tobacco offerings and prayer, that’s the traditional side of it.”
He argues the Mvskoke people back then had to use different methods because they did not have the same equipment we have today. Regardless of the age, Brown believes Mvskoke people are intelligent because they had to figure out how to effectively use the tools they had back then.
Passing the Torch
At the start of his career, Brown apprenticed under Berryhill. Brown attributes everything he knows about bow making to Berryhill.
“He had a vision back then, he wanted to bring back the bow making, there weren’t very many still making bows and his vision was a lot bigger,” Brown said. Brown mentioned that everything he is currently doing, Berryhill wanted to do. Berryhill was not familiar with making blow guns or blow darts, but it was his goal to learn before his passing.
In the past Berryhill asked Brown to take over the bow group he created. At the time, Brown had never made a bow. He would later end up taking a bow making class with his relatives, sparking an interest in the craft.
Even when Brown became better at making these bows, he still declined to take over the craft entirely from Berryhill. However, he still assisted Berryhill with classes.
When Berryhill was diagnosed with cancer, Brown visited him in the hospital. As soon as Brown entered the room, Berryhill asked, “Now are you ready to take over?”. It was then when Brown accepted the full responsibility of teaching.
Before the year of Berryhill’s passing, Brown spent every day with him learning, and embracing the time he had left with his mentor. “We talked about everything you can think of as far as culture went, clans and you know the bow making,” Brown said.
Berryhill talked to Brown about bow shooting tournaments, and how he wanted to see a Mvskoke citizen win it. Brown eventually entered in the competition for the first time. He received first place for his skill, in the process making Berryhill proud.
Brown learned more about respect from Berryhill. “You got to show respect for what we do and you have to hold our culture at hand and not let it pass. I’ve received the living legend award, it has to deal with all of the work that I do and showing respect. Putting yourself into it is the biggest thing,” Brown said.
Brown learned about the different woods and every type of bow. Later on Brown learned how to make blow darts made out of thistle. This would lead up to making dugout canoes, a craft Brown unfortunately did not have anyone to ask for help.
“That was something that our people did, you look at it like 200 years after the removal we did not need no dugout canoe so when we got to Oklahoma nobody made them no more so that was a loss start. I was pretty happy to bring that back for our tribe,” Brown said.
There is no age limit for learning about traditional Mvskoke crafts. For those with questions about any of these traditional creations by Brown, he can be contacted at 918-759-8283.