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The information and drawings for this article come from the book "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains: The culture, arts, crafts and religion of the Plains Indians" written and profusely illustrated by Thomas E. Mails. The book was first published in 1971 by Mallard Press. The book is available for purchase new and used at  and . Check your local library to read this book for free. My intent is only to spark your interest in the writings by Thomas E. Mails and send you further on a journey of reading his very informative works. ~~ Spotted Wolf

  Intro ~ About Shields and Making Shields
  Pictures of Shields
  To Make a Standard Shield
  To Make a Shield with a Wooden Hoop
  Description of a Comanche Shield-Harvey Collection
  How the Shield Was Carried
  Four Types of Shields ~ Conclusion

As the eagle's-feather head-dress is the acme of all personal adornment, so the shield is the head and front, the topmost summit of warlike paraphernalia. On it he bestows infinite patience, care and thought. Not only must it be perfect in shape, in fit, in make, but also in its "medicine." He thinks it over, he works it over, he prays over it; to its care and protection he commends his life; to its adornment he elaborates thought, and devotes his time and means; to it he appends his "medicine bag" and the scalps of his enemies; on its front is painted his totem; it occupies a conspicuous but safe place in his lodge, and is hung out every fair day in front of his door; it is his shield, his protector, his esacutcheon, his medicine, almost his God. 1


In "Memories of Life Among the Indians", by James Willard Schultz, the story is told how a Blackfoot named Fox Eyes came to make his shield. It's a superb story, it touches upon many of the delightful and mysterious parts of shield making.

After several days of fasting, Fox Eyes had a vision experience of " a certain water animal," who had come to be his sacred helper. He returned to camp and shortly thereafter gave a feast, to which he invited several warriors, including some sacred-pipe men who were believed to be especially favored by "Sun."

Fox Eyes explained he now had a secret helper but needed a shield to go to war. Now he wanted to know who would make one for him if he provided the material.

Black Otter offered first, and was chosen for the honor. Fox Eyes promised him two horses to show his gratitude, since, as Schultz explains, shields were the Blackfeet's "most cherished, believed-to-be protective possessions."

The first requirement was golden eagle tail feathers with shiny black tips, Fox Eyes built his eagle pit, and within ten days' time he had the tail feathers of four eagles. Everyone said this was "wonderfully good luck, since he now had enough to decorate the shield and to make a war bonnet, too." After this he went hunting with Schultz, and killed a buffalo bull. It was an old, old one, "whose once crescent-shaped, smooth, black, sharp horns were now mere rough, pale stubs."

This was the best possible evidence he had been brave: "He has fought many battles and survived them," said Fox Eyes as he and Schultz were removing the hide from its neck and shoulders. It was surely a sign that a shield made of his hide would be his powerful protector, and would keep him safe in battles with the enemies of his tribe.

They then took the piece of thick hide to Badger Woman, and she carefully removed its fur, leaving the glossy, brownish-black surface intact. Sometime later, it was handed to Black Otter, and the interesting ceremony of transforming it into a shield began to take place.

    For this great occasion Black Otter dressed himself in his finest war clothes: soft buckskin shirt, leggings, moccasins, all of which were beautifully embroidered with multicolored porcupine quill designs. On his head was the stupendous Blackfoot horns-and-ermine-skins warbonnet. His hands and face were painted a dull red, the sacred color. By the side of his lodge the piece of bull hide was stretched and
pegged to the ground, and kneeling on it, he began to pray, at the same time starting to cut from the hide a circular piece about four feet in diameter.

"Oh, Sun! Oh, Night Light! Morning Star! Oh, all you Above Ones," he chanted, "Listen and pity us this day. This shield that I am making, give it of your sacred power so that it will keep its owner safe in his encounters with the enemy. Oh, Above Ones! To all of us, men, women, children, give long good life, good health; help us to overcome our enemies who are ever seeking to destroy us."

Meanwhile, several women were heating a number of stones in a little fire, and near it a small pit had been dug in the ground. The women rolled some of the stones into it and covered them with a thin layer of loose earth.

    Then Black Otter, with the help of three war-clothed friends, laid the circular piece of hide over the pit, and with each of them inserting pegs one after the other into slits that had been cut at regular intervals along its edge, fastened it
tightly to the ground. As each of Black Otter's warrior friends drove in his peg, he told of some fight with the foe in which he had been the victor and counted coup. Soon the hide began to- shrink from the heat until it bent the pegs toward the center. As fast as they loosened, the three men helpers pulled them, and then drove them
in again. Black Otter supervised every step of the work, often feeling of the hide to make sure that it did not burn, and calling for more hot rocks as they were needed.

In about an hour the hide had shrunk to about half its original diameter, "and," says Schultz, "it was at least an inch thick." During the entire process Black Otter prayed frequently, and together with his helpers sang a number of sacred songs. Finally, the shrinking was completed, and Fox Eyes took the hide home and finished making a "beautiful, tail-feathers-shield of it." 2


Here then is a combination of people involved in a Blackfoot shield's construction. A friend chosen for the honor supervised the shrinking, and the owner finished it. Still others helped, including women.
    A Sioux warrior, however, reported that he secured and prepared the hide himself, and the symbols were applied by a medicine man. A common Sioux practice as this last step was completed was for the warrior to sit before the holy man and recount his coups with small sticks, dropping one for each
coup, while the holy man painted on designs, prayed over them, and sang war songs to affix their power permanently. His services in such cases were considered to be worth as many as two fine horses. 3

Although it could be punctured by a direct blow, a shield struck at an angle was tough enough to deflect lances, arrows, or even a smoothbore ball at midrange. And so the regal, smoked shield of buffalo bull hide was carried on raids and war parties by almost every Plains warrior. Furthermore, it was highly valued for its medicine power, and it was considered a most sacred and potent possession. Its painted symbols and the items appended to it had resulted from a vision, and in its manufacture and care the warrior bestowed intense selectivity , craftsmanship, and thought.

Paradoxically, to carry an especially fine one in battle was also something of a risk, as the shield-bearer became more conspicuous and a prize coup. Grand boasting was sure to follow a victory over such a foe. And what a sight it was for a mounted warrior to sweep into a fight with his shield feathers and long pendants trailing out like visible lines of speed. The paintings of Russell and Remington, most of all, capture the full effect of the shield and owner at their regal best.

It might be assumed that the medicine power of the shield was contained in the designs painted on it and in its other decorations, but serious consideration of the origin and construction of shields reveals that in the Indian's mind their power came from the sum of every step involved. As they saw it, the completed shield was literally infused with prayer and "power," and this force could be brought to bear as a wall of defense and to radiate destruction at the enemy. The fact is that it worked, perhaps because the enemy believed it too and responded accordingly. Battles were often won or lost simply on a strategy of shield medicines.






The war shield is a perfect example of the mingling of practical experience and holiness in Indian thought. To the Indian mind, not only the shape and properties of the material imparted their protective value, but also the vision, helpers, incantations, and rituals used to sensitize the shield and its cover of elk skin or some other fine material. Shields and covers for any warrior had to be made, or at least considered, by pipe holders or medicine men. Everyone in the tribe knew that dreams or visions had entrusted these men with the holy power required and the ceremonies that must be used, such as purifications, prayers, songs, sacrifices, and rituals with specific symbolisms. The resultant symbols burned into and/or painted on the shields, and painted or beaded or quilled on the covers, as well as the feathers, tassels, and the many other ornaments hung from both, were all talismanic, and when added together gave the shields a cumulative power. It was this assembled power which the warrior believed would preserve him from harm when he carried the shield into battle.

Some shields performed so well they became prophets for war expeditions. A certain Crow war party was led by a man named Mountain Wind, who had a shield of great renown. When they were in sight of the Sioux, Mountain Wind stopped to talk to his medicine before the fight.

The shield had a figure of a man painted in blue on his face. He had large ears and held in his left hand a straight red stone pipe. The figure was in the center of the shield, and it was bordered around its rim with "beautiful eagle feathers that fluttered in the breeze."

Mountain Wind took the shield from its cover, and held it above his head. Then he began to sing a song the others could not understand. Four times he sang it, and ceased. Four times the others responded with the traditional Crow yell. By then Mountain Wind was staggering like a blind man who was dizzy, and he was singing softly to his medicine, his face not toward the enemy, but toward the rising sun. His shield was waving toward the sun like a man's hands when he asked what was going to happen.

The others watched in utter fascination, even forgetting momentarily about the Sioux. Suddenly, Mountain Wind dropped the shield! It fell to the ground face downward. He lifted it as it had fallen, face downward, to the level of his breast, still singing his medicine song, and held it there till an eagle's feather fell fluttering from the shield's edge to the ground. Then Mountain Wind turned the shield to its other side. He saw many Sioux scalps and many horses, but added that one great Crow warrior would not be going home with them. Immediately Long-horse began to sing, telling of his own foreboding dream, and that he was the one who would not return.

The Crows took nine Sioux scalps and all their horses on that raid. Long-horse was the only Crow to die by a Sioux hand! 4

Another story tells of a shield which its owner could roll along the ground and then prophesy by its condition and whichever side was face up upon falling what course to follow and what the result of a raid or battle would be. Them impressive thing is that the predictions were so numerous and accurate as to merit everyone's attention and reflection. 5

In some of the tribes, shields of a common design were carried by members of societies who also used virtually the same war dress, war cries, body paint, horse decorations, and songs. Sioux pictographic drawings reveal their commonly shared society symbols did not always include the shield, but it is said that among the Cheyenne all of the shields were made by one of the societies whose members carried a plain red shield with a buffalo tail hanging from it. These red shields were believed to be particularly powerful, for the pattern was supposed to have been handed down originally by the great prophet, Sweet Medicine, who brought the tribe its sacred medicine arrows. When swung in a circle before the enemy, the red shield bearers were convinced such powers would prevent enemy arrows from hitting either the shields or themselves. If the shields failed to prevent this, it was "obviously" due to some other failure than the shields'.

Designs were usually painted on both the front of the shield and on its soft buckskin cover (or covers). Some of the patterns contained pictures of animals and/ or symbols of the elements, such as stars, or lightning, or other natural objects. Some of the designs painted on Comanche shields were lines so located as to serve as a compass to guide the owner on a cloudy day. A certain line was kept pointed at a distant landmark. All of the designs were special helpers given to the shield owner in his vision. Such designs were always applied in accordance with the strict ceremonies and taboos connected with the tribal traditions. And it was accepted that the violation of a single one would destroy the shield's power.

Bear Society members always had a bear on their shields, although an individual other than the society members might also use the symbol as the result of a vision. A drawing of a bear or bear footprint meant that the owner believed it would transfer to him the strength and, abilities of that animal whenever they were needed. If a tortoise was included in the pattern, it was because the shield- bearer had been led to believe he would live a long life (that is, long enough to live through most battles-but not till he was toothless!). The tortoise was long-Iived, and the warrior had seen that it would move about even though its head was cut off. Special medicines made of the whole or parts of "dream" animals or birds were tied to the shield or placed under the outer cover, and long pendants of animal hides, soft buckskin, or blanket cloth, preferably red or blue and decorated with eagle feathers, were fastened to the shield itself. These were supposed to endow the warrior with the courage and abilities of those animals or birds. Naturally, an opponent could read the symbols as well as the owner, and the ensuing engagements became all the more interesting for it.


PAGES IN THIS ARTICLE [ Intro~ About Shields and Shield Making ] Pictures of Shields of Various Tribes ] To Make a Standard Shield ] To Make a Wooden Hoop Shield ] Description of a Comanche Shield ] How the Shield Was Carried ] Four Types of Shields ~ Conclusion ~ Footnotes ]

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