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SHIELDS PLAINS INDIANS
Page 3 of 7

TO MAKE A STANDARD SHIELD
 

To make the standard shield in use on the Plains, a circular section of hide, approximately forty inches in diameter, was cut from the original piece taken from the buffalo bull. This was slightly more than twice as large as the shield was to be when finished. The average hide, after shrinking, was about seventeen inches in diameter, although they varied from twelve to twenty-six inches. The skin was also shrunk until it was almost twice its original thickness, or a half inch at its thickest point.

It is said that "The shield was a good practical shield made from the breast or neck hide of a bull buffalo." The area indicated is under the neck and between the shoulders. 6 But the assertion is made many times that the hide used for the shield actually came from the hump area, which was thick and tough. An Assiniboine clearly affirms this, stating that "shields for warfare were made from the thick hide that covers the hump of the buffalo." 7

 
   

CIRCLES ON BUFFALO INDICATE AREAS REPORTED BY INDIAN AUTHORITIES FROM WHICH HIDE WAS TAKEN FOR SHIELDS.


   
The hide was fastened down with wooden pegs over a round hole in the ground about eighteen inches in diameter by eighteen inches deep.
 
     
 
     
 

One edge of the hide was left loose, and this was lifted from time to time and red-hot stones were dropped in the hole.

 
     
 

Water was poured on the stones until the hot steam caused the hide to shrink to the desired size.

 
     
 

The hair was then removed with a stone or bone scraper, and the still soft hide was then pegged down over a small mound of earth. This gave it a dish shape which increased its strength.

 
     
 
     
 

A circular shape was marked on the hide with a pointed stick which had been rubbed with charcoal, and the edges were trimmed smooth to this pattern.

 
     
 

Finally, the shield was laid on a hard surface such as apiece of rawhide, and the wrinkles and dents were pounded with a smooth stone or berrymasher until the surface of the shield was fairly smooth.

 
     
 

A buckskin, rawhide, or other type of sling and a hand loop were then attached to the shield, and it was tested by having the warriors shoot arrows at it from a distance of twenty yards or so.

 
     
 

If the arrows bounced back from the hide, leaving it neither penetrated nor injured, the shield was considered fit for use. If not, it was rejected and another was made. 8

 
     
 

 

Herman Lehmann relates how the Comanches taught him to ride wild horses, to jump from the ground onto a horse as he raced by and dodge an arrow at the same time. He was taught to crouch close to the neck of the horse so an enemy could not hit him, and how to use the shield to ward off arrows. He was given a shield and placed off about fifty yards. Four braves took bows and blunt arrows and began to shoot at him. He knew what he had to do, for he had seen the performance before. He began moving the shield up and down and from right to left. The arrows poured against it and he managed to ward some of them off with the wavy motion, but torrents of blunt sticks came and he was too slow. One passed just over the shield and struck him in the forehead. He saw stars-not those painted ones on the shield, but real fiery flashes-the arrow downed him, and those who were firing let up the shooting for a time. However, the target practice soon resumed, and he had to keep at it until he had learned how to use
the shield. He was knocked down several times before he became adept. " All Indians," he said, "were thus trained." 9


 

The decoration of the shield was always accompanied by special ceremonies conducted by medicine men and proven warriors. The cover of soft dressed skin, such as deer or elk, was generally made first. It was painted with a design different from but related by color or substance to that on the shield itself.

 
     
 

The front of the shield was painted after the cover was finished, and other decorations were attached to it, such as feathers, animal skins, birds, etc.

 
     
 

 

The foregoing was the most common method of making a shield, but there were a number of ways in which hides were shrunk to make shields both among the tribes and within a given tribe. They certainly illustrate the versatility of the Indian craftsmen.

 

 

In one method the hide was prepared by staking it down on the bottom of a hole six or eight inches deep and covering it with dirt. A fire was kept burning over it for several days. After this, the hide would be shrunken and very thick. Those relating the method do not explain how the Indian moved his stakes while they were covered with fire and hot dirt. Perhaps the fire could burn down and be removed at regular intervals once the Indian became familiar with the hide's rate of shrinkage. However, since it shrank rapidly, other methods seem easier by far. The pit hole would need to be as large in diameter as the original hide, though, and perhaps if the fire were only placed in the center and could still manage to shrink the hide, the stakes, being outside it, could be more easily reached. 10

 
     
 

 

In another method a man about to construct himself a shield dug a hole two feet deep and as large in diameter as he intended to make his shield. In this he built a fire. Over it, a few inches higher than the ground he stretched the rawhide horizontally over the fire, using little pegs driven through holes made near the edges of the skin. Again, this skin was twice as large as the size of the finished shield. He invited his particular and best friends into a ring to dance and sing around it until the shrinking was completed, and to petition the Great Spirit to instill power into it. Then he spread glue made by boiling buffalo hoofs and joints in water, which was rubbed and dried in as the skin was heated. Meanwhile, a second man busily drove other pegs inside of those in the ground-as the first were gradually giving way and being pulled up by the contraction of the skin. ll

 
     
 

 

In yet another method the rawhide was cut in a disk shape twice the size of the finished shield, and shrunk by steaming over hot stones. 12

 
     
 

 

In another variation the hide was covered with a thin layer of clay on which burning coals were placed until the skin was shrunk and hardened. 13

 
     
 

 

In a final method, a pit was dug, including an access trough on the side by which cold rocks could be removed and hot rocks added from time to time.

 
     
 

 The pit was filled with hot rocks and covered by a layer of dirt shaped to the curve the owner wanted his shield to be.

Over this the hide was staked, with one edge loose and the pegs being moved in the conventional way as the hide shrunk. 14

An Arapaho states that he shrunk the hide for his shield by soaking it in water. This may account for the extremely wrinkled surfaces one sees on some shields. 15

 

NEXT - TO MAKE A WOODEN HOOP SHIELD

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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