By Gavin Shwahla
In the heart of the Adirondacks there lives a group of warrior people…The Barkeaters. Specializing in the art of atlatl throwing, they have become elite hunters of The Dead Mammoth Society. There weapon of choice is the primitive atlatl, used to hunt large bodied animals such as mammoths, dating back over 17,000 years ago to ancient Europe. Since its creation the atlatl has spread throughout the world, becoming a favored hunting technique of many indigenous people like the Australian aboriginals, who still practice this method today. The atlatl works as an extension of the wielder’s arm, allowing the dart to be launched farther, faster, and with more power!
My first encounter with the atlatl was with Dr. Curt Stager’s pioneer atlatl team. Curt is a professor of biology and natural resources here at Paul Smith’s College, but has always harbored a love for ancient technologies and culture. I joined the team because it was unusual, as I had never heard of such a thing anywhere. I believe it was the uniqueness of the tool itself that drew people to form The Barkeaters. This year, I learned Curt’s inspiration for starting such a team. “I read about it in the newspaper, SUNY Potsdam did their first one, and I read about it and said we should do something like that here,” Curt told me, “…It was unusual, and it was stone age. When I was a teenager I loved stone age Native American stuff, then I sort of got away from it. I thought: I’m not Native American, why would I do Native American stuff? Then when I saw the atlatl I thought first of all, that’s as fun as the stuff I used to do, and secondly, that’s my heritage too!” Part of the fun of the atlatl team is the childlike energy Curt brings to every practice, and especially to the battle.
This year was the second year that Paul Smith’s College competed in the great atlatl battle hosted by Dr. Tim Messner and SUNY Potsdam. The Barkeaters spent nearly two months training twice a week for the target and distance events, quickly rising to a new skill level. We were fortunate enough to be sponsored by W.B. Mason, who’s boxes make great atlatl targets! Before competition had begun, Curt and Curt’s wife, Kary Johnson, marked each of our atlatl hands with ocher dye crushed on a piece of a mammoth tusk as a tribute to our ancestors. Equipped with W.B. Mason baseball caps, we threw with our hearts and with trust in our ancestors to guide our darts to the bullseye! We progressed to the second round of target shooting where we fell short by a mere four points to SUNY Potsdam. Duris Walker was our highest scorer, with an overall score of 22 points. Mary Johnston came in second place, just behind Duris. Tobias Calzarette earned a small, yet noteworthy victory in the distance event. Sadly, SUNY Potsdam remains the holder of the silver grail, but if I know The Barkeaters, the trophy will be theirs soon!
The atlatl team is just another one of those unique parts of Paul Smith’s College that makes this little school in the woods one of a kind. What is truly impressive about the atlatl is not its power to take down massive creatures, like mammoths, but its ability to bring people of all kinds together. “It’s bonding, like a team spirit, but the great thing about atlatl is…the whole world is the team.”- Curt Stager. These days people could benefit from a little world unity, and like Curt said, atlatl is something we all have in common- from Europe to Africa to the Adirondacks, our ancestors relied on the atlatl.
This winter Curt is looking for people interested joining The Barkeaters, and anyone who would like to come give atlatl at try! The silver grail will be ours!
Thank you as always to Dr. Tim Messner and SUNY Potsdam for the food, drinks, target ranges, and being wonderful hosts all around. Thank you to Curt Stager and Kary Johnson for being great coaches!