St Michael man casting a bird spear

from "The Eskimo About Bering Strait" by E.W. Nelson.

Buearu of American Ethnology 18th annual report, 1896-97 part 1

Edward William Nelson was a pioneer in ethnographic and natural history fieldwork who spent from 1877 to 1881 in western Alaska and Siberia where he recorded his observations and collected over ten thousand specimens for the National Museum.

The following passages recorded by Nelson are related to the throwing stick.

The Eskimo are very expert in casting spears with the throwing stick. The small, light spears used in hunting seals are cast from 30 to 50 yards with considerable accuracy and force. I have seen them practice by the hour throwing their spears at young waterfowl, and their accuracy is remarkable. The birds sometimes would see the spear coming and dive just before it reached them, but almost invariably the weapon struck in the middle of the circle on the water where the bird had gone down. Bird spears are generally cast overhand, so as to strike from above, but if the birds are shy and dive quickly, the spears are cast with an underhand throw so that they skim along the surface of the water. I have seen a hunter throwing a spear at waterfowl on the surface of a stream when small waves were running; the spear would tip the crests of the waves, sending up little jets of spray, and yet continue its course for 20 or 25 yards. This method is very confusing to the birds, as they are frequently struck by the spear before they seem to be aware of its approach. When throwing spears into flocks of partly fledged ducks or geese that are bunched together, two or even three are sometimes impaled at once upon the triple points.

Various throwing and holding techniques

In using the throwing stick for casting the spear in a curve through the air by an overhand motion, the throwing stick is held pointing backward; the end of the spear shaft is laid in the groove on its upper surface, resting against the ivory pin or other crosspiece at the outer end; the shaft of the spear crosses the fingers and is held in position by grasping with the thumb and forefinger around the throwing stick. The under side of the spear rests upon the extended end of the third finger, which lies along a groove in the throwing stick. This gives the outer end of the spear an upward cant, so that when it is cast it takes a slightly upward course. If the cast is to be made directly forward with a vertical motion of the hand, the spear is held with the groove upward; but in throwing the spear along the surface of the water the throwing stick is so held that the groove faces outwardly. In using throwing sticks that have pins set along the side for finger-rests, the spear is held in position by the thumb and second finger instead of with the thumb and first finger, as is usual with other throwing sticks. In the case of the three-peg throwing sticks the spear rests upon the turned-in ends of the first and third fingers, while the thumb and second finger hold it in position from above.

Formula to determine throwing stick size

The throwing sticks used by the Unalit Eskimo are made of a length proportioned to the size of the person who is to use them; this is determined by the measurement of the forearm from the point of the right elbow to the tip of the outstretched forefinger. Throwing sticks used with the spears for hunting white whales are made longer by the width of the forefinger than those used for seal and bird spears.

Formula to determine dart size

The ordinary length of the seal spears used with throwing sticks by the Unalit is calculated as three times the distance from the point of the maker's elbow to the tip of the outstretched forefinger, with the added width of the left thumb for each of the first two cubits and the width of the left hand added to the last. Seal hunters are not so careful about the precise length of their throwing sticks as the white whale hunters, who are extremely exact in their measurements.

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