Archive for the 'Grass' Category

Object: Huaorani Blowgun, Quiver with Darts, and Kapok-filled Gourd



Figure 1: Huaorani blowgun. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 


Figure 2: Huaorani quiver with darts, kapok gourd (the kapok fluff is visible in the plastic bag above the quiver) and piranha jaw. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 

E/1968/5/001, E/1968/5/002
Blowgun, Darts & Quiver
Ecuador, South America
Unknown Date
Materials: Wood with attached plant material (blowgun); wood basket containing plant material with attached metal beads, animal bone, and fur threads (quiver & darts)

Hailing from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador, the Huaorani (also commonly known as the Waorani, Waodani, and Waos) people are historically marked by their independent nature. [1] Although Western influence has crept into some aspects of Huaorani life, such as through the introduction of shotguns for hunting purposes, some Huaorani continue to make use of traditional hunting weaponry – namely, blowguns that can reach up to 11 feet in length. A full-length blowgun, complete with quiver and darts, is located in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. In the past, these weapons held a more prominent position in Huaorani culture. In its prime, the blowgun was a remarkable influence in Huaorani kinship and social customs, and left a legacy that remains evident to this day.


Figure 3: Closeup of the end of a Huaorani blowgun. Notice that the blowgun is built from two sections of palm wood that have been reattached. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 

The physical construction of these blowguns & their accessories sheds light on the immense skill possessed by these Huaorani craftsmen. Blowpipes are made from a split palm wood rod; the two halves are grooved, then reattached with beeswax and encased in vine bark. The Huaorani smooth out the opening created by the two grooves by placing sand inside the grooves and smoothing vertically with a slim, sturdy fishing lance. [1] Darts are created from the whittled stems of palm leaves and stored in a bamboo quiver. The Huaroani often apply curare, a potent neurotoxin, to these darts. [3] Other components of the Huaorani blowgun kit include a hollowed-out gourd filled with kapok (the fluff surrounding the seeds of Ceiba Petandra) [2] and a section of a piranha’s jaw, often attached to the rope connecting the gourd to the quiver.

When hunting with these blowguns, a wad of kapok is wrapped around the lower end of the dart. When the dart is inserted into the blowgun, air passing through the pipe will not pass around the sides of the dart but will build up behind the kapok wad, pushing the dart out of the blowgun at a high speed. [2] The Huaorani then use the sharp teeth on the piranha mandible to cut a deep notch on the front end of the dart. This ensures that the poisoned tip of the dart will break off in the intended target [3] and lead to its demise; the curare poison can kill an organism after just 2-3 minutes of exposure. [4] When firing the blowgun, the Huaorani build a tremendous amount of air pressure in their mouths and release it in one rapid exhalation into the blowgun, causing the dart to fly out at a high speed and with lethal accuracy. As the volume of the blowgun is less than a tenth than that of the human lung, the most important factor in firing a blowgun lies in the control of air expenditure exerted by Huaorani hunters, who are able to strike small targets (i.e., hummingbirds) upwards of 120 feet away. [3]

Take a look at the following videos for demonstration on the use of blowguns: Waorani (Huaorani) man demonstrating wrapping kapok around the darts & using the blowgun. Amazonian native, naturalist, and guide Juan Kunchikuy demonstrating the technique of modifying & firing darts at targets placed on the head of a New York Times reporter.


In Huaorani society, the significance of the blowgun encompassed many areas of their lives and culture. Prior to the introduction of shotguns in the 1970s, blowguns were viewed as symbolic tools used to monitor the social closeness between a variety of entities. One example lies in the close bond between the Huaorani and arboreal prey such as monkeys. The Huaorani hold a great deal of respect for these primates (esp. wooly monkeys) owing to their similarity in social structure and territoriality, going so far as to spare certain individuals while hunting and to share food sources with them. [1] When hunting monkeys, the Huaorani used the blowgun to down prey they feel a close social connection to, allowing the hunters to remove the spatial distance and social distance between them by using these primates for sustenance. [1]

In modern Huaorani culture, the blowgun no longer receives widespread use; its significance as a regulator of social proximity has also declined. However, its place in the Ethnology Collection at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History ensures that its legacy and historical significance will always remain evident and relevant.

[Daniel Quintela]

[1] Descola, Philippe, and Gísli Pálsson. “Chapter 8: Blowpipes and Spears.” Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives. N.p.: Psychology, 1996. 145-65. Google Books. Google. Web. <>.  

[2]Smith, Nigel. “Oenocarpus Bataua.” Palms and People in the Amazon. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 401-12. Geobotany Studies. Springer Link. Springer International Publishing AG. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. < 1_50&*~hmac=caec4e8034004f90f686b3b44006eca9ccda4efeeff60aec2af86ff698194bb6>.  

[3] Talbot, Steve. In the Belly of the Beast: Technology, Nature and the Human Prospect. Ghent, NY: Nature Institute, 2004. The Nature Institute. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <>.

[4] TheNewYorkTimes. “Kristof in the Crosshairs: A Blowgun Showdown in the Amazon | The New York Times.” YouTube. Google, 07 May 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <>.

Object: Ritual Mask

Ritual Mask
Columbia, South America
Bark Cloth, Paint, Tar

This mask is made of a bark cloth bag, which fits over the head of the wearer and is tied at the top. The bag comes to a point, which hangs over the top of the head. From this point of the tie, there are tassels of straw that hang down. The face portion of the mask has an oval disk of hardened tar, from which there are two tar covered pieces of wood protruding. The black tar is decorated with linear and geometric designs in white and yellow pigments.

This mask comes from the Yucuna Indians of Columbia. They inhabit the Miriti-Parana and lower Caqueta regions of the Amazon River on lands called resguardos. These lands are similar to reservations in the United States in that they are constitutionally approved by the government. Thanks to these resguardos, the Yucunas have been able to maintain many of their traditional ways and live with their worldview intact. This worldview emphasizes the interconnectedness of the environment with all living things. This interconnectedness is seen in the belief that balance must be maintained between humans, animals, and plants. If too much energy exists in any one of these categories, it would disrupt the natural flow of life. To aid in maintaining the balance, the tribe uses shamans (religious leaders) to help guide the group in properly distributing their resources and keep a healthy balance.

The mask depicted here is used in tribal dances by men. The mask is most likely used to celebrate the harvest of palm fruit, but it is only used once before being discarded. The dance is a way the Yucuna can celebrate their interconnectedness with nature and keeps nature in balance. Palm fruits come in a wide variety and are found in tropical regions all over the world. Some examples of the edible varieties of these fruits are coconuts and Acai berries. For many indigenous peoples around the world, palm fruits provide essential food for survival and even today are seen as an important part of their lives. Like the fruit, there are other parts of the palm tree, which provide for people. Leaves can be used as parts of traditional clothing and for housing, and they can also be used to store food by wrapping it up in the leaves. The bark and trunks of some palm trees are used for bark cloth clothing, such as what was used in this mask, in addition to making canoes.


Fabius, Carine

2012  Jagua, A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon. Los Angeles: Kouraj Press.

Stein, Geoff

2011  Edible Palms: An Introduction to Palm Fruits.

[Dakota Stevens]

Object: Fish Trap

Fish Trap
Sumatra, Indonesia
Unknown Date
Materials: Bamboo

This object is a cylindrical-shaped woven bamboo fish trap. It is about 10.5 inches high by 20 inches long by 8 inches wide while the lid is 4.5 inches in diameter. The side of the basket has a hole that measures 7.5 inches in length and 1.75 inches in width. The hole is designed to allow fish to enter the trap, but does not allow the fish to exit. The top of the fish trap has a hole where the fish are dumped out by the fisherman. There is a round lid situated over the hole to prevent the fish from escaping while in the trap.

This fish trap was purchased from street peddlers on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia between 1968-1978 at a camp near the city of Pekanbaru. Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of around 17,500 islands in between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.   Today, Indonesia represents a crossroads of culture and trade with more than 300 distinct ethnic groups and more than 700 languages still spoken.

Fish traps are woven from bamboo and rattan and are set in the water about five meters (16.4 feet) deep. Fishermen often attach their traps to lines and buoys that float on the surface of the water so they can know where they left the traps. The lines (or ropes) make it easy to haul the traps to the surface of the water once they are full of fish. Sometimes, however, the fishermen simply rely on their memory to know where they set the traps, and then they swim down to retrieve them. Usually, a trap is left in the water for a few days to ensure their success at catching fish.

The fish are taken out of the trap through a special hole. In the case of the trap from the Ethnology Collection, the hole is at the top. This isn’t always the case. It depends on the style of the trap.

The fishing industry is vital to many of the cultural groups of Indonesia and the surrounding region and has been for centuries. A fish trap is called a “bubu” in Bahasa, one of the most common Malay and Indonesian languages. Fish traps come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all serve the same purpose: to catch fish and keep them from escaping.









Take a look at this interesting video on how to make a similar type of bamboo fish trap:


[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Basket

South America: Brazil: Tocantins: Mateiros
ca. 1990-2000
Materials: Grass

This basket, made of golden grass (Syngonanthus nitens) and fiber from the buriti palm (Mauritia flexuosa) was made in the village of Mateiros in the state of Tocantins, Brazil. Golden grass is not actually a grass, but instead is a grass-like species from the Eriocaulaceae family, native to the Brazilian cerrado. These plants produce small white flowers each year but are prized for their shiny metallic stems. Golden grass weaving is thought to have been developed by the indigenous Xerente (or Sherente) people. Today golden grass is used to make a large number of products, primarily for the tourist trade. It is currently one of the most important economic sources in the Jalapão area of Tocantins, Brazil. For that reason local government and community groups have been working to ensure the sustainability of this precious natural resource. Amongst these efforts is a limit on when the plants can be harvested, and a ban on the sale of the raw materials to outside areas.

The following video show what the raw material looks like and includes a weaving demonstration.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Basket

Qwu’lh-hwai-pum (or Klickitat)
North America: Columbia River area
Unknown date: likely 20th century
Materials: Cedar and grass

The Qwu’lh-hwai-pum (or Klickitat) tribe traditionally lived in the area around the Columbia river in what is now Oregon, and Washington. They are part of the Shahaptian (or Sahaptin) language family, along with other Plateau tribes like the Nez Percé, and Yakima. The Qwu’lh-hwai-pum were one of many tribes from the Columbia river area that were “discovered” by Lewis and Clark on their great transcontinental expedition in the early 1800’s.

For thousands of years the Columbia river and its many tributaries served as the main means of transportation for the native tribes of the area. Fishing and trade in food items like deer and salmon meat as well as baskets thrived along the river banks. Baskets were important for gathering and storing food and personal items. Twined baskets were used to harvest root crops, coiled baskets were used for collecting berries while flat cornhusk baskets were used for storing dried roots. Below you will find a video that shows many of these basket styles and how they are made.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Shell money

New Hebrides: Oceania
Date Unknown
Materials: Limpet shells, grass fiber

Shell money is commonly used in the Oceanic region, particularly in Melanesia and the Solomon Islands. It’s production involves diving for seashells, filing them down to the correct size and shape, drilling a hole in the center, and finally stringing them on fibers to create loops of shell money. Long strings of this money are called fathoms, and objects are “purchased” by a certain number of fathoms, depending on what the item is, but always rounded to units of ten (20 fathoms, 30 fathoms, etc.).

This money is used to pay for necessities such as marriage and bride wealth, pigs, and to sponsor feasts and ceremonies with the intention of doctoring diseases, settling disputes, sacrificing to the deceased and publicly expressing alliances. The amount paid is dependent on who is involved in the transaction, their relationship to each other, and the overall value of the goods or services being exchanged.

The Melanesian form of money has often been referred to not as “real money”, but rather a type of substitute for currency. This is due to its different uses and societal obligations. In capitalist societies, money is completely detached and separate from interpersonal relationships, giving economic transactions no social implications. There are certain criteria for what distinguishes money from other forms of exchange. It has defined values, can be divided and is used as a medium of exchange for goods and services. Melanesian money is more intertwined in the society as a socio-political exchange, rather than just simply a market exchange. Shell money has intrinsic character and prestige that creates and builds relationships, which is very different from a market economy where money is detached and impersonal.

Today, this type of economic system is accepted as “real” money, and recognizes the fact that currency cannot be analyzed based on Western and capitalist standards. Rather, since these shells are being used as a medium of exchange, which is the primary criteria for defining money, it is now widely acknowledged that this system is a legitimate economy, trading and purchasing things beyond just commodities and commercial goods.

[Kristina Sokolowsky]

Object: Goat Muzzle

Kara: Basketry Goat Muzzle
Eastern Africa
20th Century
Materials: Grass, straw

This object is a basketry goat muzzle from Ukara Island in northern Tanzania. Ukara Island is a small island (77 km²) located in the southeastern part of Lake Victoria (formerly known as Lake Noubaale). The name Ukara means Land (u) of the Spirit (ka) of the Sun (ra). Because of its small size and population density, most of the land on Ukara Island is privately owned so that every available acre can be farmed. The demands of agricultural production have resulted in Ukarans replacing most of the vegetation indigenous to the island with plants farmed for subsistence purposes. Millet, cassava, rice, and vegetables are staple crops, but many families also raise cattle fodder to feed several head of cattle for manure production. Because of the limited farmland, Ukarans are careful to keep the soil fertile, productive, and nutrient-rich with composted manure. Families can spend up to 12 hours a day transporting manure to fields and working fertilization into the soil.

Basketry muzzles like the one above, are used by Ukarans to keep their herds of sheep and goats from eating grasses or crops owned by someone else. Goats are kept in grass huts when not grazing on private fodder, but while being moved to water sources, they can be muzzled to discourage them from grazing along the way. This basketry muzzle is woven from narrow grass stems and straw. It contains two twisted fiber cords at each end for tying around the head of a goat. Some goats are not required to wear muzzles because they are considered sacred. When a witch doctor places the spirit of a departed ancestor in a goat, the animal is not muzzled. Instead, bells are used to signify their sacredness.

[Lauren Simons]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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