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Flintknapping, the Cherokee tradition of carving sharp tools

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With a good piece of leather to protect his leg and a pile of hammerstones and antlers at his side, Cherokee craftsman Noel Grayson creates a workspace for flintknapping, a traditional method for making sharp-edged stone tools from flint and chert. This is how arrowheads are made.

“Tips like this we would have used for knives, cutting implements, we would stick them on shafts. We hunted big animals like mastodon, woolly mammoth, the short-faced bear, a giant tree sloth. All the big game like that, all the mega fauna were taken with tools like this.”

large chunk of sharp-edged stone
In this Visit Cherokee Nation video, Grayson shares his knowledge to help pass along these ancient art forms to future generations. From Craftsman’s Legacy:

“Noel Grayson and his brothers used to make bows and arrows as kids using sticks and chicken feathers. As he grew up, he dedicated himself to learning how to make these tools in the traditional Cherokee manner. What started off as a hobby, soon became his passion as he worked to perfect his craft.”

Grayson is also a Cherokee National Treasure, an honor given by the Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee National Historical Society to artisans and culture keepers of Cherokee traditions.

antler tool
The art form depends on attention, observation, patience, practice, and experience. It’s traditionally taught at an early age. He explains:

“It takes time and, to me, it’s like looking at a Rubik’s cube and figuring it out, but all I’m doing is carving a rock.”

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian‘s collection includes dozens of these handmade artifacts, “Paleo points” that date back to 11,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. Making them was “a skill taught at an early age.” From Outside Magazine:

“The two basic techniques of flintknapping are percussion flaking, which is used to break apart large cobbles of flint or obsidian into smaller, flatter flakes, and pressure flaking, which uses an antler or copper billet to remove fine flakes of stone and gradually shape the cobble into a tool.”

refining the tool with an antler shares techniques and tips, which includes wearing protective eyewear and gloves, and working in the open-air to avoid breathing any chipping dust.

“Knapping is not really a very dangerous activity, IF proper precautions are taken. Small cuts are, however, a constant threat, and a few things can be done to minimize injury…

A SERIOUS CAUTION- The flakes you remove are sharp and effective cutting tools, and if you continue long in the hobby you WILL see your own blood. Luckily, the sharp and sterile flakes generally deliver a painless cut and tend to heal nicely. With reasonable care, flintknapping is safe, relaxing and extremely rewarding.”

carving tools
Related exploration: Native American Artifacts: Arrowheads (.pdf) and this Lithic Reduction Process Diagram.

Watch these handpicked videos next:
Amanda Crowe, Eastern Band Cherokee Indian woodcarver
• Gathering maple sugar the traditional Anishinaabe way
The science of Blue Corn Mush, a classic indigenous recipe
My Father’s Tools and the Indigenous art of basket weaving
Hopi Dryland Farming: Growing corn with rainfall in the desert

Bonus: Melodious stone instruments called lithophones.

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