So your spear is there and if it’s a long one you hang on to it and then flip it and then the force from here [the throwing board] is speeding through your spear to the animal.
—Vlass Shabolin, 2003
A throwing board was used for launching sea otter, seal, and bird darts (spears). The dart rested in a groove on the board’s upper side, hooked on its end by an ivory peg and held in place by the hunter’s forefinger. During the throw the dart lifted and shot forward, with the board catapulting it from behind. One side of the board is painted red, to attract sea otters; the other is black, representing the animal’s fur. When a hunter struck an otter he held the board high to signal his success to others in the hunt.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Dimensions: Length 49cm
Source: US Fish Commission (collector)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 020373.000
Mary Bourdukofsky: Throwing board.
Vlass Shabolin: Dart thrower. The groove is on the bottom side, and the spear slides in it. The hole there is for your thumb. So your spear is there and then you flip it, and then with the force from here, it’s speeding through your spear to the animal. It’s not a big spear, likely something like that is used for birds.
Mary Bourdukofsky: [The pegs are] to hold the fingers.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
One weapon used widely in day to day hunting was the spear [dart] and its catapult called a ‘throwing stick.‘ This had its own place on the baidarka [kayak], always within easy reach of its owner.
- Bill Tcheripanoff of Akutan (1)
Gripping a haasxux^ [throwing board] to add extra leverage to the snap of his arm and wrist, an Unangax^ hunter could launch a seal or sea otter dart with great force and accuracy. At the beginning of the throw, the dart rested in a groove on the board’s upper (red) side, its butt end engaged by a small ivory peg; then it lifted up and shot forward as the board propelled it from behind. As Bill Tcheripanoff (1902-1991) explained, the haasxux^ was carried on the front deck of the baidarka [kayak], always at hand for launching a range of weapons including darts for birds, otters, whales, and seals.(2) Throws of up to 40 or 50 yards could be achieved.(3) The quickest hunters could launch a second dart while the first was still in flight.
(4) At sea, the throwing board had a great advantage over the bow and arrow because it required only one hand to use, leaving the other free to steady the boat with a paddle.(5)
Throwing boards had an especially strong cultural association with sea otter hunting. A team of kayaks would surround an otter in an ever-closing circle, each man attempting to strike it with a dart.(6) Otters were believed to be transformed human beings who would willingly gave themselves to the hunters, and who were attracted by the beauty of finely-made boats, clothing, and weapons.(7) Nikolskie Elder Sergie Sovoroff (1902-1989) said that the red paint on one side of a throwing board (also seen on other weapons) was to attract otters. The board’s black side was held up as a signal that an animal had been hit.(8) He also said that a “D” standing for the Russian da [yes] was sometimes carved on the black face. Other men told anthropologist William Laughlin that the black paint represented the fur of the sea otter, while the red paint was its blood.(9)
Throwing boards were made to fit the individual hunter, using the width and length of his own hand, fingers, and arm to determine the proper dimensions. For example, the width of the board was equal to the distance across the first three fingers held tightly together; the length was found by stretching the thumb and index finger twice and adding the distance from the tip of the index finger to the second knuckle.(10)
1. Hudson 1992:148
2. Laughlin 1980:39
3. Coxe 1966:105; Laughlin 1980:32
4. Veniaminov 1984:284
5. Laughlin 1980:39
6. Jochelson 1933:8; Netsvetov 1980:43; Veniaminov 1984:330-31
7. Veniaminov 1984:224-25
8. Hudson 1992:179
9. Laughlin 1980:39
10. From Sergie Sovoroff, in Hudson 1992:148