The Art of Knapping, Flint or Otherwise

March 30, 2021

The latest episode of Within The Realm deals with Vyrl Keeter, a flint knapper, a maker of stone tools or weapons’ in the style and custom of pre-Columbian America. Maybe you know them better as arrowheads. Vyrl, who happens to be my Uncle, made so by marrying my Aunt Bobbie Rhea, has practiced and perfected the art to the point where, just a few years ago, the Cherokee Nation named him a National Treasure for his knowledge on the subject.

“Knapping is a German word meaning to strike or to nibble,” Vyrl states, sounding very much like the school room teacher he once was. In the shop in his backyard he regularly holds classes to pass on the skill to the next generation. This is the charge of a Cherokee National Treasure; to keep the culture alive.

Knapping involves striking a rock with another hard object, thinning it down and working it into a shape with a edge . Eventually the tool has taken the form desired by the knapper and can be made into a finished product through pressure knapping, using other techniques and tools.

“Patience,” Vyrl replies when asked what the custom has taught him. “Patience and settling down so you can pay attention to the work at hand.”

Sometimes the rock is struck too hard or the maker gets in a hurry. “You can be almost ninety percent done with your piece, make a wrong strike and break it in two., destroying the piece, ” he says. “It will teach you to settle down and be patient.”

Making a podcast, at least for me is very much like the work Vyrl does with his flint.

An average interview might have thirty minutes or more of recorded audio. Not all of that is going to be usable, so I begin whittling down. I remove information not necessary to the story, which could be large chunks of the conversation. Then the editing becomes much more detailed, removing unnecessary spaces and stammers. It is usually on of my more favorite parts of the process.

But this story has presented it’s challenges. Over two years ago I sat with Vyrl in his work shop interviewing him about knapping and his designation as a Cherokee National Treasure. It was a beautiful summer afternoon. I was still new to podcasting an recording interviews on my phone using the garage band app. As I recorded the conversation, while Vyrl made an arrowhead, I could hear how I was going to put the story together. I couldn’t wait to begin the editing process.

Once I got the audio onto my computer to edit, all I could hear was the motor of the fan in the workshop. The entire interview was unusable. In my second interview with my Uncle, I had more experience, better equipment and the trial and error of the previous attempt. I whittled down the conversation and was piecing the audio together when, with the drop of my mouse, the computer screen changed and a few additional missteps later, the nearly complete episode was unworkable. I still don’t understand what happened. I had to start again, piecing the the episode together.

“You’ll make a mistake,” Vyrl said about knapping. “And when you do, you’ve got to pay for it. You’ll have to get a new rock or make another item if  the work can be salvaged.”

After months of trying to get the story right, I knew exactly what he meant. Patience is key to getting anything worth doing done. The tough thing about it is the trial and error, the paying for those mistakes is what it takes to gain it.