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Little hands wanted to hold the skin of rattlesnakes, so Francis Cahoon obliged by tossing them into a rapt audience of awed third- and fourth-graders.

So loud were the "ooohs" and "ahhhs" of the Target Range Elementary kids that Cahoon eventually had to ask them to keep the rumble down to a bearable level.

Cahoon, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was at the school Monday morning to show students the tools and tasks of his trades as a bowmaker, competition archer and bowhunter.

With every bit of newly discovered knowledge, the cafeteria of more than 100 erupted in sounds of kids in educational ecstasy.

Indian Education for All? Fun stuff, they found out.

"There are very few warriors in the tribe anymore," said Cahoon, the first among three Native educators to visit Target Range for its Native American Culture Week. "It's kind of a lost art."

The tables before him were littered with all sorts of things that make kids squirm and squeal.

Bear skulls. Mink pelts. Ram horns. Strips of sinew. Sharp-as-razor arrowheads. Hide-piercing arrows. Bows made of wood and horns that can shoot their ammunition 215 feet per second.

And, of course, snake skins.

***

Used to be that tribes would make bows merely out of wood and string, Cahoon told them. And that might have been fine if a hunter's every target were 10 feet away.

But, he said, the tribes needed stronger, faster, tougher bows for strong, fast and tough targets far away. Like bears and buffalo.

"The farther you draw a bow back," he said, "the better the chance that the wood will break or fail."

Back then, there were no metal bows, and no hardware stores to sell them in if there were. The American Indians did what they always did - turned to the strength and utility of nature.

They found the tough woods that could bend - yew, thornapple, cedar. They found the animal tissues that fortified them - sinew, snakeskin, tips from bison horns. And eventually they found the horns of bighorn sheep and other animals that replaced the wood altogether.

And so they made - and still make, in Cahoon's case - some of the world's strongest bows.

Stringing a longbow up, Cahoon wrenched back on the bow's string, exerting more than 100 pounds of pressure as the bow's tips bent backward. Were there an arrow loaded in this thing, it would launch a turkey-feather-guided, arrowhead-tipped missile hundreds of feet per second, striking deep into its target.

"You see how much that bow is bending?" he asked the kids. "If that was wood, it would explode."

***

Cahoon's visit to Target Range was arranged, in part, by his daughter Heather Cahoon, an educator and expert on tribal sovereignty who works with teachers and school districts to implement Indian Education for All, a state program that brings Native speakers and culture into Montana's classrooms.

Teachers and districts are excited to develop Indian Education programs, but some of them aren't sure where to begin. As an independent consultant in Missoula, Cahoon, through her Kloli Event Planning & Consulting business, guides them in professional development seminars, and also helps schedule Native speakers, dancers, artists and elders.

And archers, like her father.

Target Range is just one of the school districts she's helped.

"I have a lot of sympathy for the teachers who just don't know where to start," she said. "A lot of them are very sensitive - they don't want to do anything incorrectly. So they're very sensitive about proceeding."

Rightfully so, given the dearth of Indian education in the history of public schools.

"Growing up, I went to public school on the reservation," said Heather Cahoon. "And it wasn't until I got to college that I started hearing any sort of the tribal side of history."

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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