Oral history interview with John Knifechief

OOHRP, Oklahoma State University
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Little Thunder: Today is April 28, 2015, and I'm interviewing John Knifechief, a Pawnee tribal member, at the Pawnee Nation museum in Pawnee, Oklahoma. John, you make different cultural items, handmade arrows and bows, buffalo spears, lances, and you often do demonstrations. You will be at three different museums in Nebraska this summer, demonstrating and selling with your youngest son. A number of your cultural items are owned by collectors, and one of your spears is planted at Ground Zero [New York]. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Knifechief: You're welcome.

Little Thunder: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Knifechief: I was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma. We grew up in a little town called Ralston, Oklahoma, and when I got to be ten or eleven years old, we moved to Pawnee, Oklahoma. Ever since I can remember, my dad was a farmer. He grew corn, 1:00and potatoes, and stuff. He plowed fields, and I would find arrowheads or something to make arrowheads. My dad showed me how to gather the dogwood for my arrows to make the shafts. I'd use turkey feathers or chicken feathers because my dad had chickens. I'd use fishing line or any kind of string I could find to make the arrows. My dad would make the bows out of bodark or hickory. Ever since I was a little kid, I used to carry a bow to school and hide my bow and arrows outside by the propane tank at school. (Laughter) I would be able to shoot squirrels out of trees, and I'd shoot rabbits. I'd shoot pigeons at the cotton gin in Ralston.

When we moved to Pawnee, my dad owned a lot of land in Pawnee and Skedee and 2:00Ralston. We would hunt rabbits and raccoons and different things. I would kill the raccoons and skin them and sell the pelts for money. When we were younger, we used to make our own toys. We didn't have color TV or telephones or anything like that, what they have nowadays. Everything that I have made--I used to sell my arrows for three dollars apiece a long time ago. Now I sell them for fifty dollars apiece. Now I have certificates of authenticity with each thing I make. The wood is dogwood, and the string is sinew, and the feathers are wild turkey feathers from his wing or from his tail. I use goose feathers, white ones, or I 3:00can dye them black to make them black, different colors, whatever anybody wants. Arrowheads are flint, chert, obsidian, just whatever I can find to knap arrowheads out of.

I also make tomahawks, and spears, bow-plant spears, arrowhead necklaces, buffalo knives, and buffalo scrapers, skinners. I would go to museums and see what the Pawnees have made. I would keep the pictures of the things that I seen in museums in my head, so whenever I got home I'd go to the land, and I'd gather up what I needed to make the same things that I seen my ancestors and what they 4:00used back in the 1800s. I'd bring it back to life in my own way. A lot of people, they will buy my things for collectors, or they would ask me who made them. I'd tell them that a Pawnee made them. They'd say, "Who's the Pawnee?" I'd say, "I am the Pawnee that made them." I am a full-blood Pawnee, and my ancestors came from Nebraska. There's different things that my dad taught me how to do. I have a little boy, Charles Knifechief, that helps me right now. He's nine years old, and he helps me make my arrows, and he knows what to gather with me.

Bodark, we let the bodark trees lay for five to ten years to let them cure 5:00before we make a bow because if you don't, they'll split or they'll crack. If you go sell someone a bow and it cracks, it's not good for me or for them. My arrows have been all over the place. I was a Pawnee Fire Scout. To raise money to pay my bills, I would make the arrows and bows and things and sell them to pay my rent and my utilities and different things. I get invited to go to different towns or states to demonstrate how to make arrows or to raise money, and also to pay I and my little boy's bills. It helps me support my son and, like I said, pay my bills. Everything and anything that I make is the way that my ancestors used to make them. I can make just about anything. I used to draw 6:00and paint. When my son John, my firstborn, John Knifechief, when he was born I drew and painted pictures of Pawnees. I'd go jump on my bike and ride around and go sell them so I could buy formula and diapers for him.

Then came along my next son, Dennis Knifechief, named after my dad, and I would do the same thing. Make arrows or bows or do beadwork to pay for his diapers and milk. Then I have another son, Jeremiah Knifechief, that I did the same thing, also. I have one final son. He just turned nine years old, April 28. He helps me 7:00gather wood, flint, and sinew, and turkey feathers. He splits the turkey feathers in the center, and I wrap them on the dogwood to make my arrows. He's the one that's going to be carrying on the art that I do, hopefully. All my boys, they know how to do different things. My son John Knifechief works at the Pawnee Museum. He's a good artist, but he has a regular job to pay his bills. My middle son, Dennis, is a pro-boxer. My son Jeremiah lives in Arkansas. My nine-year-old lives with me. It's him and I. I just enjoy doing what I do, and I 8:00want to keep it alive in my tribe.

I'm going to be going to Republic, Kansas, in June this year. I'm also going to Kearney, Nebraska, and Pawnee, Nebraska, Pawnee Highway. Me and my little boy's going to demonstrate how to make arrows and bows, and we're going to be selling my things that I make. I enjoy meeting different Native American tribes and all kinds of different people because they have not seen handmade things. It makes me happy to show them what I have learned from my father. We're just going to be going around Nebraska, checking out the places where my ancestors made the journey from 1876 to Oklahoma (now called Pawnee, Oklahoma) to honor them 9:00through things I make, to honor my father and the ones that have gone.

Little Thunder: Did you have brothers and sisters at home?

Knifechief: Yes, I have. Dennis Knifechief passed away when he was a baby, my first brother. My oldest brother is James Knifechief, and my brother Charles Knifechief. I'm the middle one, so I got picked on a lot. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: How about your mom. Was she a housewife?

Knifechief: My mother passed away when I was a baby--

Little Thunder: Oh, okay.

Knifechief: --from smoke inhalation here in Pawnee, Oklahoma, so I never knew my mother.

Little Thunder: I'm sorry.

Knifechief: My father raised us by himself.


Little Thunder: Were your dad's folks passed on already, too? Did you have any grandparents on either side?

Knifechief: Yeah, on my mother's side, Bob Rice worked down here in Pawnee, Oklahoma, at the trading post. My mother's mom was still alive, Tina Rice. My mom's side has numerous brothers and sisters. On my dad's side, Dennis Knifechief is my dad's name. John Knifechief is my dad's brother, and Manuel Knifechief. He had two brothers. I grew up in a different time. My dad was fifty-six when he had me. Mom was, like, twenty-something. I was born in ΚΌ66. When I was a kid, knowing what I had been making, arrows, this and that, 11:00everybody was older. I was young. I was seeing everybody pass away. When I got big, they were all gone.

Little Thunder: You grew up around Pawnee language, though? Your dad spoke Pawnee to you?

Knifechief: Yes.

Little Thunder: You're passing that on to your son, I understand.

Knifechief: Yes, yes, yes.

Little Thunder: When your dad first showed you those arrowheads that he came across, what kinds of thoughts or feelings did that spark in you?

Knifechief: When I was little, I always had a Bear fiberglass bow. It was green. Bear was the bow maker back in the late '50s. I had the wooden arrows from the Army store here in Pawnee, Oklahoma, on Main Street a couple doors down. I would 12:00shoot them arrows. I could shoot rabbits, squirrels out of trees, birds, anything I wanted. Then my dad, just out of the blue, cut some bodark off the land in Skedee, Oklahoma, and he made a bow. Then he showed me how to make them the old way. The arrows, he showed me how to get the dogwood because they're straight. They come out in the springtime, and when they bloom they have white flowers on them. That's when you go get them. They have little bitty pinholes in them. When I'll gather up a bundle of them, I will peel them, let them dry for like a month or two. Then I'll start a fire. I'll roll them over the fire, and there are burn marks on the dogwood that will harden and straighten through 13:00there. You can see the little pinholes where the smoke will puff out when you bend them.

Little Thunder: Probably your hunting was important in feeding the family, too?

Knifechief: Yes, I killed a lot of, ate a lot of rabbit and squirrel gravy back in the day, and biscuits, (Laughter) and fry bread.

Little Thunder: Aside from the obvious element of skill, what's the difference between hunting with a .22 and hunting with a bow and arrow?

Knifechief: You get more meaning out of hunting, killing something with a bow and arrow. My dad taught me if you are going to kill something, eat it and use the hide. Eat and use what you kill. Don't just go kill it just to be killing it, to say "I killed this or that." If you shot something with a .22, that's a 14:00[inaudible] way of using to hunt. It has more meaning to me to hunt and kill something with your own thing that you made with your own hands. You can go buy a gun just about anywhere, put a bullet in it, and shoot whatever. Nowadays, they have compound bows that have sights and everything on them. To me, that's cheating. If you want to go kill a trophy deer, elk, or bear, go make your own bow and arrow and do it the old way. That has more meaning to me. It means a lot to me.

Little Thunder: What were your favorite subjects in elementary school?

Knifechief: Math, and social studies, and English. I did pretty good, but I had 15:00to go to a special class because my speech. I used to slur S's and different, in the alphabet. I had to go to speech therapy when I was little. Then I got into the third and fourth grade, and I liked playing basketball. I was the tallest one, so that's pretty good. (Laughter) Little bitty guys. When I was thirteen, fourteen, I went to Chilocco Indian School. I learned how to do better in painting and beadwork. I had art teachers, and I was real good at swimming. I already knew how to make arrows and things. I didn't have no money. I'd make 16:00arrows and sell my arrows at Chilocco Indian School, and people would buy them from me. It would give me money to go to the movie. The movies were only fifty or seventy-five cents to go watch a movie. You could take two dollars and get you a popcorn, and pop, and some candy, plus going to the movie. Nowadays, it's ten, fifteen dollars for a ticket, real expensive now.

Little Thunder: I was wondering if you got any kind of art instruction in public school? It sounds like most of it came from Chilocco, or was it a mix?

Knifechief: It all came from my dad. I would see things in museums, Pawnee Museums or for Pawnees, and I kind of mocked them. I would see them, and in my 17:00mind I could take a picture of them. I'd be so eager to get home to go out in the woods and get what I needed to make it and see how I made it. I would go to different towns or whatever to show people, and they'd offer me money for it. They thought it was real good. They'd never seen anything like it, so it made me want to continue making. Chilocco Indian School, they taught me how to paint, and draw, and do beadwork. Making arrows, and bows, and skinners, and buffalo knives was from my father. I learned to make things to survive, to pay my bills. I just had to go to Chilocco because I was a ornery kid, teenager. (Laughter)


Little Thunder: You boxed there a little bit, too. Is that right?

Knifechief: I, and my oldest brother, and my cousin David Knifechief, my brother James Knifechief, boxed here at Pawnee, Oklahoma, at the Armory. Johnny Haymond was our boxing coach and Bob Littleson was a boxing coach. Tim Brown was a boxing coach. I boxed at Chilocco, too. I was just a little teenager. Got worked over at Chilocco, but I did better here at Pawnee, boxing, because I had my own people that taught me. At Chilocco, they more or less put gloves on me, a pair of shorts and boxing shoes, and I got worked over sometimes.

Little Thunder: What did you do after high school?

Knifechief: I went to Talking Leaves Job Corps at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for three 19:00years. I took the trades: welding, carpentry, and masonry. I became certified in all three of them. You go there three years, and then you graduate. Then they give you a certain amount of money for taking them three classes. They fed you, and they gave you a roof over my head. I met a young lady there, or young girl. I was just out of high school. We got our own place. It was a journey through life, good and bad. I'd rather enjoy the future instead of look back at the past because it's good to reflect on the past sometimes, but it's better to look 20:00towards the future. That's why I do what I do.

Little Thunder: So even though you're selling your work, you're continuing to sell the things that you make, but you did get involved with the Wildland Firefighters for a while, I guess.

Knifechief: Yes, I was a Pawnee Fire Scout for Pawnee, Oklahoma, for four years or five years. I came home from a wildland fire, and I had motorcycle. It was my brother Charles Knifechief's motorcycle. On a rainy day I was on the highway, and a kid hit me. They had to reattach my right foot back to my leg, so I can't do what I used to. What I learned when I was younger, making arrows and stuff, 21:00that's the only way I could survive. I can't work. I'm disabled, I guess, because I can't walk around for too long at a time. So I went back to the old way, the only good way for me, because people will buy my things. It helps me pay and eat, buy things I need to eat, and clothe my little boy, help my older children if they need help. Good thing that my father taught me what I know how to do because it's helping me pay my bills.

Little Thunder: I didn't know if maybe also the skills that you had from your childhood helped you as a firefighter.

Knifechief: Well, when I was a Wildland Firefighter for the Pawnee Fire Scouts, 22:00I knew different things about the woods and land and everything. The fires that we went to, and hurricanes, and oil spills, and space shuttle recovery in 2003, all kinds of things that I've seen and done, different things when I was a Wildland Firefighter, you wouldn't believe the things that has happened. I used to be about two hundred pounds when I used to be a Wildland Firefighter, in good shape. Now I weigh, like, 285 or 295, and I'm just bigger. I can't--my right foot, I can't go around very good.

Little Thunder: When you're gathering materials, that's quite a bit of walking. You're planning that into the seasons, I guess.


Knifechief: Yes. In the spring, the dogwood, they come out, and they bloom out at our campgrounds. That's where I get the dogwood, and out at Pawnee Lake, I go out there and get the dogwood. At the south cemetery where my mother's buried at, they have dogwood around the cemetery. In north cemetery, they have dogwood out that way. I already know where to go, where the best places are. You have to wait at least two years before you go back to gather them because you have to give them time to grow back up. There's different places here in Pawnee, Skedee, that I go get my material and things.

Little Thunder: Pretty much you don't get anything down Choteau way, which is where you live. You're coming back up here for most of what you need?


Knifechief: I come back on certain times of the year to get my things. I get enough to last me. I moved away from here in Pawnee, Oklahoma, more or less to give me and my little boy a fresh start because I've had him since he was a little bitty guy. I wanted him and I to be together so I can teach him what I know. He does good in school. He makes As and every now and then a B. He's real smart. He just turned nine, but he thinks he's eighteen. (Laughter) He likes to boss me around, but I love him.

Little Thunder: You're also, of course, hunting, I assume. You're getting your turkeys, for the most part? When you do use wild turkey, are you getting your own turkeys?

Knifechief: Yes, turkeys and deer horns are plentiful on our land here in Pawnee 25:00and Skedee and different areas. In this area they're real thick because it's Native American, restricted Indian land. We lease them out for farming, grazing and oil and gas royalties, so the people that lease them can't hunt on there. I come out and kill a deer or two, and a turkey for their wings and for their tail. My dad's birthday's on Thanksgiving, so it's good to have a good turkey on his birthday to honor him. Everything that me and my little boy use, we know where to go, ever since I was his age, a little boy to now.

Little Thunder: Have you been--have you noticed any changes, though? Is it harder to get certain things because the land is changing?


Knifechief: Yeah, there's a lot of different things because of the erosion and people litter. It just changes the land. It's totally different. When I was younger, dogwood and bodark and hickory trees were so thick and plentiful. Nowadays, everything's getting polluted, and people throw trash out, and they don't care. I know different places where to go, to go get my stuff.

Little Thunder: When and where did you first make your first museum contact for selling, I guess, or demonstrating?

Knifechief: I was in Cushing, Oklahoma. I made me a quiver. My friend had a 27:00truck, and I told him to drop me off in the middle of town. He dropped me off in the middle of town, and he said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I need to get some stuff, formula, milk, and some diapers for my boy." He said, "Oh, you can't sell them arrows." I went to a couple businesses, just walking the main street in Cushing. The man asked me how much were the arrows. I told him how much the quiver was. He said, "I'll buy everything from you." I was all happy. My arrows are five dollars apiece, and I had six arrows. That was thirty dollars. The quiver was twenty-five, so I had fifty-five dollars. That was a lot. I went and bought my friend some gas, and got the milk, and formula, and 28:00some diapers. Came back to Pawnee and made some more. Kept doing it, making and making them. Now my arrows are fifty dollars apiece and my quivers, a hundred and fifty apiece. You can kind of tell how much from back then to now. My son is twenty-seven now, so it's twenty-seven years ago when I was selling for five bucks apiece. Now they're fifty dollars apiece for my arrows. It's a big difference.

Little Thunder: Right. You have different kinds of customers. You sell to other Native people who actually do use bow and arrow, right? And you also sell to people for whom it's something that they enjoy but they display.


Knifechief: Yes, I've went to several different tribes. They buy my arrows to shoot out of their bows. They like my arrows better than they do from their own tribe. That's pretty cool, to them honor me that way. I have repeat customers from lawyers to senators, different people. I have my arrows and bows and different things all over the United States because when I used to be a firefighter, I used to take arrows with me so I could sell them to different people in different states. They would have me sign them, and they'd put them in their museum. I have them all over the place. The faster I make them, the sooner I can sell them. Sometimes. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: Right. Have you had a museum ever request specifically that you make something specific for them, for their museum?


Knifechief: Republic, Kansas, about five or six years ago asked me to make a bow, a quiver, and six arrows, and a couple of buffalo knives, and skinners, and scrapers, I guess more or less two of everything that I make, for the museum in Republic, Kansas, and a couple museums in Nebraska, down by the Platte River where the Pawnees are from. I have stuff in museums in Nebraska and Republic, Kansas, where the Pawnees have been through, making their journey.

My dad has his Indian corn that they regrew in Republic, Kansas. Also, two years ago my oldest son and my youngest son and I were at Kearney, Nebraska, for the hundredth, the centennial of the archway that they have there. It's a big 31:00museum. I got to be a guest speaker, I guess, there. My oldest son, John Knifechief, was giving tours on the Earth Lodge like we have in the background. My little boy was running around. I seen where in Nebraska they were replanting my dad's Indian corn on that land. They were bottling it up and selling it to raise money for what they do down there. I'm honored that my dad is still kept alive there.

Little Thunder: Yeah. Do you do a garden, a little garden?

Knifechief: I did a while back, but now I've been so busy. Once my youngest son, Charles Knifechief, gets big and can take care of himself, I'm moving back to 32:00Pawnee. I'm going to live here by the Black Bear [Creek] where my dad left us some land and where he grew his corn. That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to live off the land when I get--. I'm forty-eight now. My son'll be done with high school not too much longer, I hope. I want to enjoy myself, living on my land that my dad left me, and make what I make, and pay my bills.

Little Thunder: Sounds like a neat plan. You, of course, have been such a good marksman since you were little. I guess you have participated in at least one Cornstalk Shoot?

Knifechief: Yeah, I did. It was a while back, though. I was invited to the Cherokee Holidays to the Cornstalk Shoot, and I accidentally won it. These guys 33:00do this every--three or four times a year they get together. For a Pawnee to go down there and accidentally win it--I never got invited back. That's okay. They invited me to sell my arrows down there. My brother Charles Knifechief, my youngest brother, him and I sold my arrows down there. I had a table full of my arrows. I sold all my arrows within five hours, and I had a lot of arrows. All the other booths, there were a little bit of people there, but mainly they were all focused on my arrows.

Little Thunder: Not many people doing that, and they are so beautiful. We're going to look at them pretty soon. Do you mind sharing the story about after 34:009/11? You felt really moved by the firefighters' sacrifice, and there was something you wanted to do.

Knifechief: I knew some of the firefighters that cross-trained with the Wildland Firefighters when I used to be a Oklahoma Wildland Firefighter, Pawnee Fire Scout. One of the firefighters from New York called me and asked me if I would make something to help raise money for the men and women that we lost. I made some bow-plant spears for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and they sold them. They raised money for the 343 fire fighters that we lost. They planted one of my spears at Ground Zero. That's really an honor. That's something that, it was the 35:00right thing to do. It's just something that I'm happy that I done, just like anybody else would do something for our country.

Little Thunder: I'm sure you have to do a lot of educating when you demonstrate and when you sell. I'm wondering what's one of the biggest misconceptions that you have to try to address?Knifechief: There's not a lot of people but there's some people that think that because I'm from Pawnee that we still live the same way, on horses and tipis and wagons. When I was a Wildland Firefighter for Pawnee Fire Scouts, I'd meet different people around different states that would 36:00ask me, "Do you still live in a tipi? Do you still have round houses? Do you still ride horses?" I let them know that we still have tipis, but they're for meetings, peyote meetings. We have earth lodges and roundhouses for gatherings. Everything has a purpose. It's not like it used to be. We have powwows and gatherings of different tribes that gather together. We have Straight Dance contests and Fancy Dance contests. Different tribes come from all over the Unites States to enjoy theirself and meet their relatives from different tribes and get together. Some even ask if we still make bows and arrows. I'll say, "Yes, I know a couple of them that still do," but they don't know that I'm one 37:00of them. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: What's one of the craziest or most humorous situations you found yourself in, in your travels maybe, when you were selling?

Knifechief: I was in Nebraska a couple years ago, Kearney, Nebraska, and a guy said that he would buy a couple arrows from me, and a bow, if I could split a apple with one of my arrows. I said, "I can only do it if you stick it on top of someone's head and you walk back twenty-five paces." There was a man standing next to him, and he said, "My brother will put it on top of his head." We're inside the museum at Kearney, Nebraska, a couple years ago. I said, "Are you 38:00serious?" He said, "Yes, I'm serious." I said, "Okay." That man took twenty-five paces. He got the apple, put it on top of his head. I pulled that arrow back on my bow, and I act like I was going to shoot it. That guy was squinting his eyes, and his brother was laughing. (Laughter) I didn't shoot, but that was one of the craziest things.

Little Thunder: What's your favorite thing to make?

Knifechief: My arrows. I love making arrows. I can probably close my eyes and make an arrow. I've been doing it for about forty years, off and on, through the years. Arrows are my favorite.

Little Thunder: How did you know when it was time to start raising your prices? Sometimes the business part's hard to figure out.

Knifechief: It was real easy for me to figure it out because first time I sold 39:00them in Cushing about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years ago, the man bought them all, bought everything I had. I'd wait maybe six months, and I'd go up to ten dollars. Then I'd go up to fifteen. Then one of my brothers said, "Why don't you go up to twenty-five?" So I went up to twenty-five, and they were still buying everything. I just progressed every six months or a year and gradually got up to fifty dollars an arrow for each arrow, fifty. When you buy something that's handmade, you get a certificate of authenticity with it, and it tells you who I am and where everything came from. It's all typed up. My brother Charles Knifechief's wife, Donna Knifechief, typed it up for me on a computer because I don't know how to do any of that.


On the top of my certificate it has "Chahiksichahiks." It means "men of men" or "people of people" in our language. It has all the chiefs in the background, and it has Chahiksichahiks on the head of the paper certificate. Usually, people ask me to sign my name on a piece of paper. I used to charge five dollars for my signature. Now I get fifty dollars if I write my name on something. I'm honored people will pay me for my signature and a certificate of authenticity, but I've worked hard for what I have. People, if they want something that's real and authentic, they'll pay the money for it. It's good to know that people still 41:00want real things instead of something made in China or Taiwan. Mine's made in the USA, and that I'm real proud of.

Little Thunder: Do you get a lot of commissions, people who call the house, maybe, wanting--

Knifechief: Yeah, I have these business cards, and I'll give them out. If someone buys something, I'll give them three or four business cards, and they'll give one to a friend. I usually get two or three phone calls a week where people order something. I'll get it together, and I'll drive to where they're at. I'll deliver them, and they'll pay me, and I'll drive back home. I get asked to go to schools or different places to demonstrate how to make my arrows to people. I enjoy doing that. I'm older now, and it's hard for me to hold back the tears 42:00whenever I talk about certain things. I don't want it to be that way. It's just from becoming older, but that's a good, good thing.

Little Thunder: What's one of your favorite school memories of working with school kids?

Knifechief: Whenever they had a little elementary school in Pryor, Oklahoma, my little boy went with me. He handed out tickets to every little kid in there. I had six different arrows up there. When I got done, we'd draw six tickets, and you'd get one of them arrows. That last ticket, all them little kids were 43:00standing up, just wanting it. There's one little kid sitting in the back. He was just sitting there, rocking his chair. Called that last ticket, and no one said anything. That little kid just rocking his chair. He looked at that ticket, and, boy, he just flipped over the back of his chair. (Laughs) "I got it! I got it! I got it!" That was the funniest thing. Everybody was laughing and stuff. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: That's a great story. What's the hardest, one of the hardest things that you've ever made?

Knifechief: The hardest thing I've ever made was probably the bows because you have to have a certain length and certain thickness. You have to bevel when you--I have my dad's drawknife. You have to draw that knife from the center. You find the center of your bodark, and you have to pull from the center, out. It 44:00has to be thicker and goes down to a little bit skinnier towards the tip where you string up your bow. That was the hardest thing to teach myself, but after doing it for several years, I can do it pretty easy. That's the hardest thing.

Little Thunder: Can you talk a little bit more about the buffalo spears? Are their shafts made from bodark, too, or what are the materials that go--Knifechief: The bow-plant spears, I call them, they're six or seven foot long. They have buffalo hide for the center to hold them. The points are either metal, or people can have them out of flint. Usually I have four feathers on there, or eight feathers. Eight feathers represent the eight wars that the 45:00Native Americans have been in war, conflict with. Four feathers represent north, east, south, and west, and the four bands in our tribe, also the four, like, spring, summer, autumn, and winter. They all have different meanings. Like, for the stars, when I was little, my dad used to point up when there'd be a clear sky. He'd tell us what each star, the pattern for the Pawnees, what that meant and everything. Everything that I have has a different meaning for it. The burn marks that I put on anything and everything I make, it looks like fingerprints on them. That's to honor my ancestors on there. I'm the only one that makes the 46:00burn marks on everything that I make, that I know of.

Little Thunder: You mentioned, I know, in one interview that there's a significance that lances have in terms of war and peace. I wondered if you'd mind sharing that.

Knifechief: When the head chief would have his--people nowadays say "the left hand man" or "right hand man." The chief would be in the middle, and there'd be a warrior on the left of him and one on the right. Whenever they'd go into war, one of the warriors would have a bow-plant spear. Before they went in, he would throw that spear into the ground, and that's where the war'd begin. On the way out, if one of the warriors didn't make it out or the chief didn't make it out, (there was always one that made it out) he would pick it up and take it back to 47:00the camp, and they would talk about who they lost in that war or what happened. In the tipi, the chiefs would get together, and they would figure out who needed to take care of who. That's the meaning of the bow-plant spear.

Little Thunder: If you're getting ready to make a knife and you're looking for materials for knife handles, do you go by the grip more, or is it also partly how it looks? Is it both things?

Knifechief: After making them for several years, it depends on where I'm going to go sell them at because people want different shapes and sizes. Everybody is not the same. Our mind is totally different. Some people can see something that I make, and they just got to have it. There's some things that people won't even 48:00touch or look at. I make different colors and different sizes and shapes. Some things I make that I don't think would sell, (they're oddball, I call them) someone will be attracted to it because it's oddball. It depends on if someone orders something a certain way. I'll make it the way they want. If not, I'm just going to make it the way I feel. Usually I do good with the way I feel making something.

Little Thunder: So what's your creative routine? Do you try to work mostly while your son's in school or--. Sounds like he works a lot with you.

Knifechief: I'll do everything, try to do everything during the daytime while he's at school or at nighttime when he's asleep. It just depends on how I feel. 49:00If my leg's not hurting or whatever--. John Knifechief used to be a singer. He traveled all over in the service, and when he got out of the service, he went around to powwows. Tom, Steve, and Charlie Knifechief sang all the time. I'll put in one of his CDs or cassettes. I'll listen to it, and it'll get me in the mood, and I'll start making arrows or knives or whatever. It just depends on my mood and how I feel. I always listen to CDs of my family singing and stuff.

Little Thunder: You'll have several things going at one time, different phases of the--.

Knifechief: Yes. People always ask me to make one arrow, and I try to make six 50:00or twelve. I try to make everything in sixes for some reason. It benefits me more if I make six or twelve at a time because usually people--. In a set, there's six arrows, one quiver, and one bow. That's a set. Or someone wants to buy a set of arrows, that's six in a set. I have on a piece of paper what I make and this and that. It has a contact number if someone wants to order something. Even if they ask me to come to where their school to demonstrate how to do what I do, I'll do it for a small fee. I'll bring my little boy with me, and he'll help me do things.

Little Thunder: Looking back on your work so far and your career so far, what 51:00was a turning point for you where you could have gone one way and you chose to go another?

Knifechief: When my son was born, April 28, nine years ago.

Little Thunder: Today's his birthday.

Knifechief: That's what made me turn for the better.

Little Thunder: How about one of the low points of your career so far?

Knifechief: My motorcycle wreck. It made me see the light.

Little Thunder: We're going to look at some of your work and talk about that for a few minutes. Is there anything we forgot to talk about or anything you'd like to add?

Knifechief: I enjoy doing what I do, and I'm honored that people ask me to do 52:00what I do. I'd be happy to go just about anywhere to show what I do, to let people know that there's still people like me. I'm sure there is in other tribes that do what I do, but I'm honored that I'm the one in my tribe. I'm really honored that I'm a full-blood Pawnee, but it's a dying art that I'm trying to keep alive through my little boy. He'll be the one that will take off with it. I am a mere shadow, walking in the path of the light of our Lord. My oldest brother told me to say that. I seen him over the weekend. He said, "Next time you're going to thank for whatever, remember to say, 'I am a mere shadow, walking in the path of light of our Lord.'" My brother is a ordained Baptist preacher, the oldest. I seen him over the weekend getting gas out at that Stonewolf Casino, me and my little boy. He was teasing me. He said, "Make sure you say that next time." I said, "I will." (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Now you can send him a copy of it.

Knifechief: Yeah. He said, "I'm going to watch it, too." I said, "Okay, okay brother!" He's my big brother. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: He sounds like a big brother. --

Knifechief: Last year, that Oklahoma magazine, they had me in a magazine. People called me like crazy, which is good because--.

Little Thunder: That's great! It really set off a flurry of publicity, huh?

Knifechief: Native Times did two stories, and then USA Today did a story--

Little Thunder: USA Today did a story?

Knifechief: --a whole bunch of different people. I told them, "I don't want the publicity or whatever." Then my oldest brother said, "No, you want to publicity."

Little Thunder: You do want the publicity. It helps get--

Knifechief: Now I know. Now I know.

Little Thunder: It helps get your work out there. -- Okay, we're looking at some of your arrows, John. I notice there are some with some pink shafts.


Knifechief: The pink shafts are for breast cancer awareness. Feathers are pink, and the sinew's dyed pink, and the black ones are dyed goose feathers and dyed black sinew. The white's goose and wild turkey feathers from his wing. The sinew's different colors. This is regular, and that's dyed black. The pink is dyed pink.

Little Thunder: Right. Oh, they're beautiful.

Knifechief: The wood is dogwood. The burn marks are straight and through the arrow. They're all--

Little Thunder: Each one's unique.

Knifechief: Yeah. They're all thirty-one and a quarter inches long, not including the arrow. Arrowheads are flint, chert, agate, obsidian, different types.


Little Thunder: Beautiful. Okay, now we're looking at quiver, bow, and medicine bag. I don't know if you want to talk about some of the detailing. You can see the bow there real nicely, how it's scalloped on the edge.

Knifechief: Like on these?

Little Thunder: Yes.

Knifechief: It's from the bodark. You know, they got all them knots in them.

Little Thunder: Oh, that's from the knots in the bodark, okay, wow. Then you painted the stripes on the quiver.

Knifechief: To match the feathers. The medicine bag is to protect the hunter or 55:00warrior when he goes into battle, or if he goes on a hunting trip to guide him to where the deer, elk, and buffalo are at.

Little Thunder: Beautiful. Okay, now we're looking at one of your lances here. It's got the metal point on it.

Knifechief: Yes. I should have brought another one.

Little Thunder: You've done some painting on the wood, too. Is this bodark?

Knifechief: Yes. The wood's bodark and [inaudible], and the four feathers 56:00represent the four bands in our tribe, also the four directions, the four seasons in the year. I'm a Native American, proud to be an American, so I put the USA flags on there to represent that. The burn marks are to straighten the bodark. They're my fingerprints, and they're honoring the ancestors, from them making a journey from Nebraska to Oklahoma.

Little Thunder: Wow! This is beautiful work. I'm so glad you're carrying on your father's legacy, and your son's going to carry on, too. Thank you very much for 57:00your time today, John.

Knifechief: Thank you.

------- End of interview -------