Defensive and Offensive Power of the Shield

By: H. N. W.

Originally Published in 1938

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TWO superb Dakota shields recently added to the collections of the University Museum reveal the true meaning of the Indian shield. Its protection inheres not alone in the disc of rawhide cut from the hardy breast of the buffalo bull, but in the painted device, sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden beneath a cover of buckskin, and even more in the medicine sac, feathers, claws, and other amulets attached to the disc. These are the substances which link the owner to the spiritual forces of his world and insure their powerful aid.

Plate X — Dakota Shields
Ceremonial shield made of a mesh of rawhide thongs symbolizing a spider’s web to entice the enemy and prepared scalp stretched upon its hoop.
Image Number: 12899

The smaller of the two shields is of the usual type of hide disc with buckskin cover. Its greatest interest lies in the wealth of “medicine” which gave it power-the eagles’ talons, the tail of a deer, the otter-skin sling, and last, but not least, two little netted discs. Even the war whistle is in evidence.

The significance of these is more clearly shown on the larger shield. Here the potency of the buffalo hide has been ignored. In place of the disc is an open mesh of rawhide thongs stretched upon a hoop. It symbolizes, at one and the same time, a spider’s web, designed to entice and enmesh the enemy, and also a prepared scalp stretched upon its hoop. Actually, locks of human hair, in lieu of scalps, hang from the otter-skin band that crosses the middle of the shield. Nine miniature shields, similarly meshed, are attached to this defensive and offensive weapon. Such of them as bear wrappings of otter skin indicate scalps taken from the enemy with the swiftness, strength and strategy of that sleek animal helper. Several are without such wrappings, and these stand for lacrosse sticks, since that game is indeed a conflict into which the players enter, protected and strengthened by “medicine” calling to their aid their spiritual patrons. In this display of miniature shields, the owner boasted of the powers conferred by his spiritual helpers which made him invincible in war and in the lesser battle of the ball.

To one of these little shields is attached the tiny skin sac of “medicine,” of which no one knew the contents save the medicine man who had compounded it, and its magic was beyond computing. Its purpose was to “draw the enemy near and kill him”- a strengthening of the potency of the spider’s web, as it were. This medicine bag is the most potent part of the many-powered shield. Its offensive strength is so great that no one save the owner might touch it, without incurring danger to himself or his offspring to the second generation.

The feathers of the eagle that hang from the great hoop appeal to the potency of that winged warrior, par excellence. In this position, they are the record of scalps taken-one for each feather. Placed on the hoop in two groups of seven each, they stand for the united strength of the seven tribes of the Dakota (Sioux) League. Tufts of eagle down adorning them are the symbol of “waken” or spiritual power inherent in and emanating from all things. Those attached to feathers of the lower group are dyed red and refer to war and the prowess of the owner; the green-hued down of the upper series suggests the later dominant feelings of peace and the power of the shield to protect him as he walks abroad.

This very rare web-shield is believed to have been owned by the Dakota chief, Charles Black Horse. Its value is enhanced by the fact that to Dr. Frank G. Speck of the University of Pennsylvania we owe the record of its interpretation by an ex-chief of the Santee Sioux, Maxpiwitcácta, Cloud or Sky Man.

Plate X — Dakota Shields
Shield made of a disc of a rawhide cut from the breast of the buffalo bull. Its interest lies in the wealth of its medicine.
Museum Object Number: 37-8-1A / 37-8-1B
Image Number: 12903

It is characteristic that among the animals, eagle, otter, deer, whose parts and whose powers were embodied in the shield of Chief Charles Black Horse, his name animal does not appear. Valued as is that animal, it lives too close to man to be considered “spiritually pure” and hence possessed of great “waken.” Only the wild animals, dwelling far “away from the contamination of human contact, and especially human breath,” may be en rapport with the great forces of nature and strong to succor. To such the warrior appeals, through fasting and prayer, for strength and protection, and in dreams or in visions he receives them.

Dr. Speck sums up the significance of the shield in these words:

“Integrally the shield is a symbol of defiance to enemy warriors, an emblem of vaunting the wearer’s bravery, and a pictographic symbol of his sources of spiritual strength and invulnerability. Some historical events in the wearer’s career and a certain sense of appeal to his animal spiritual helpers form part of the rich symbolism.”

The brave, Black Horse, successful in war, as shown by his record, wished to enter the Heyucka Society of Warriors. With great care he prepared his T’o’k’a or Enemy Shield, “as a symbol of his power and intrepidity.” He then presented himself at a meeting of the society, and gave a horse to one of its members. Wearing the shield slung from his his shoulder, he danced, pausing to recount his “coups” and boast of his powers. As he ceased, the society member who had received the horse, took him by the hand, in sign of his acceptance and admission into full membership of the Heyucka. His shield was taken from his shoulder and hung upon a pole, where all the assembled company might read and interpret its meaning (if his previous recital had left any doubt of it). It remained the property of Black Horse, to be used at other times in the ceremonies of the Warrior Society.

This web-shield is essentially a ceremonial shield. Its protection is purely spiritual, magical in our phrasing. Chief Black Horse may have embodied the same “medicine” in a stout shield for actual warfare, in which case, he flaunted it, not deigning to believe the “medicine” of an enemy could be powerful enough to overcome his own.

Just such a shield is the smaller of the two shields, practical, but provided with all the symbols which made real a protection the Indian believed to be greater than any rawhide.

Both of these beautiful weapons have come to the University Museum from the generous hand of Dr. Samuel W. Fernberger.

H. N. W .

Cite This Article

W., H. N.. "Defensive and Offensive Power of the Shield." Museum Bulletin VII, no. 2 (March, 1938): 24-27. Accessed July 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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