Sacred Protection

Shields of the Plains and Southwest in The University Museum's Collections

Originally Published in 1991

View PDF

In his article, Hall introduces the shield with a brief history of its use: “The round shield or target is the characteristic New World shield. Other forms occur, but among aboriginal American users of shields, this type is predominant, and the geographical limits of its distribution suggest that its use spread from one center, probably Mexico. All the shields dealt with here are made of hide, which was the only material used for shields among the Indians of the Plains; their neighbors of the southwest, the Pueblo tribes, made their round shields of wicker and of a heavy fabric of cotton as well as of thick rawhide. In both regions the shields bore symbolical painted de­vices, as they did also in Mexico.

“The indigenous animals which afforded hide of suitable thickness were the elk and the buffalo. In later times horsehide and cowhide came into use. The intro­duction of firearms might have been expected to render the rawhide shield obsolete, but the protection afforded by it had probably been from very early times con­ceived as largely of a magical nature, and the shield long continued to be a part of the equipment of the mounted warrior armed with musket or rifle. Its early use in ceremonies of a magico-religious character also ensured its survival for similar purposes after its abandonment by the warrior in the field. Writing in 1907 of the Dakota, Wissler says, Practically no shields of buffalo hide are to be found in the hands of the surviving Dakota; but in social and religious cere­monies, models or shield-covers of buckskin or cloth, upon which are painted the designs formerly placed on shields, are often used’ (1907:22).”

form discontinuous tines cutting each other at the center of the shield and dividing the whole area into four sectors. . .

“Even where details or main designs are not ob­viously based on the circle, its influence…may some­times be traced. . .In a case like the bird of Fig. [3], in which there is a determined attempt at realism, [this] influence can, I think, be traced in the bold curves of the outline of head, beak and talons, and the sweeping curve of the wings; while the legs are disposed as if the designer wished to make sure that they would fall well within the circle which might be completed by joining and producing the curves of the outlines of the wings and beak.”

Hall points out that a shield’s efficacy lay as much or more in its supernatural or “medicinal” power as in its physical properties. Another Museum curator, Frank Speck, explains how the buffalo robe illustrated here is misleading as an historical document (Fernberger and Speck 1938:175-176):

“Among the mounted Plains Indians, the shield was never worn on the arm in battle. This arm position is evident, nevertheless, in the pictures reproduced from a buffalo robe described by Hall [1926a:5,35]. In con­nection with these pictures, one may raise the question as to whether this position of the shield was not partly or even wholly an artifact of the artistic treatment of the subject—a depiction of incidents in a series of Indian battles. For the purpose of such a record, it was important to show the heraldic designs on the shields in order to identify the combatant individuals. Due to the limitations of the pattern of their art tradition, all of the figures are shown in profile. Hence, if they are to be seen at all, the shields would have been worn on the arm in the picture. And it will be noted that all of the individuals here depicted with a shield are armed only with the lance. It is difficult to imagine how the shield could be carried on the arm if the bow and arrow or the rifle were employed as offensive weapons. [Most] . . specimens of Plains Indian shields are provided with a long leather thong or bandolier for suspension around the neck and shoulder and were thus suspended across the abdomen or across the back.

“This position for carrying the shield again empha­sizes the aspect of magical protection which the object afforded, inasmuch as the warrior was never expected to turn his back to the enemy during combat. Thus a shield, worn in this position, could not be expected to protect by physical interposition between the projectile and the wearer, and so could protect only by its magical powers. And it may be pointed out further that a shield, if worn by a horseman and suspended in this dorsal position, particularly with its loosely tied appendages, would tend to swing away from the body of the wearer with the movements of the horse. Such a moving target, swinging away from the body of the wearer, would have the psychological effect of diverting the aim of the opponent, and would indeed have a certain amount of actual protective value.”

If the shield’s efficacy was largely supernatural, then where did that power reside? Hall questions how important the shield was in itself: “It does not seem clear whether the rawhide disc in itself was endowed with any part of the magical power that inhered in the whole apparatus with its painted cover and attachments of feathers, furs, and other pendent charms, or that, like a Congo fetish figure, the power resided in the attachments and was com­municated to the object to which they were attached only so long as they remained in place. Of the twelve shields with which we are here concerned, eight have a painted device on the shield itself; one other, also without cover, has for its only decoration, apart from traces of color, thongs passed through slits in the two layers of hide of which it is made so as to form a number of circles concentric with the circumference of the shield, the primary object of this contrivance being evidently to hold the two layers of hide together. To the shields themselves or to their covers feathers are often attached, usually forming a fringe, which, falling from the upper part of the circumference, may obscure or completely hide the painted decoration of the shield or cover. Sometimes the feathers are attached to the shield or cover directly; sometimes indirectly by means of a band of woolen stuff, usually red, to which they are fastened. [This] Shoshone shield shows a good example of the kind of feathered streamer which is represented as an attachment [to] some of the shields on the painted buffalo robe [shown in Fig. 4].”Hall points out that shields, on account of their circular shape, presented special artistic challenges to their designers: “Almost inevitably. . .the shape of the field to be decorated imposed upon the designers the nature of their main designs. In nearly ally cases these are based on a simple analysis of the circle, and a repetition of the outline of the given circular field. Fig. [2], which is to be regarded as a modified circle, has a central dark circular area from which issue short rays terminating in dots, the latter forming a broken line concentric, in intention, at least, with the outer circumference of the shield. Thongs passed through holes in the hide of which the shield is made at right angles to each other.

Cite This Article

"Sacred Protection." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 2 (July, 1991): -. Accessed April 18, 2024.

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

Report problems and issues to