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Sharpening skills: Kids learn how American Indians made arrows

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LEHI — It wasn't only American Indian men who made arrowheads and spearheads.

The women — who did the cooking — made them, too.

They also made the knives for cutting up meat.

And it didn't really matter if the tools they made were attractive or impressive.

"All that mattered was, 'Could it kill their dinner?"' said Ben Woodruff as he showed a roomful of boys and girls how to "flint-knap."

Woodruff is an experienced woodsman, bow hunter and archer who uses what he makes to kill meat for his golden eagle.

Woodruff is a bird trainer and member of the Utah Valley Knapping Association as well.

He periodically teaches classes in arrow making at the Hutchings Museum in Lehi, classes that are so popular that organizers had to create multiple sections for all those who signed up.

In his classes, Woodruff explains the difference between creating arrows by pushing and snapping a particular rock (pressure flaking) and hitting (percussion).

He likes to work on obsidian, which is basically lava that came up underwater, one of the sharpest hard surfaces known. It made excellent arrow tips and was so prized that even the deboutage, or waste pieces, were used rather than discarded.

Holding the rock, or "spawl," on his knee (which is covered in leather), Woodruff breaks off a slice by pushing at the rock with a piece of copper imbedded in wood.

(American Indians used elk or deer antlers and pieces of bone.)

He then grinds down the sharp edge and repeats the exercise until he has exactly the arrow or spearhead he wants. It takes about an hour for an experienced knapper to make an arrowhead.

Gavin Fowler, 9, from Lehi, found it challenging. "No, I never did this before," Fowler said. "I came just because in school we're learning about Indians."

"It's harder than I thought, yeah," said Jacob Stevenson, 10, from Highland.

It takes a lot of practice and sometimes a few bandages, said Woodruff.

"I like making the large spearheads," said Woodruff. "I enjoy it. This is one of the few things all of our ancestors did to survive."

Woodruff stressed the value of wearing gloves while flint-knapping to protect the fingers and hands. He also suggested laying the rock on the leg and curling into a ball to give one more strength to push with.

"The harder the push, the bigger the break," he said.

E-mail: haddoc@desnews.com