Native American Shields: History & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Shields are an important part of any warring culture, but in Amerindian nations these objects had unique significance. In this lesson, we'll explore the design and use of Amerindian shields, and see what role they played in Amerindian warfare.

Shields in Native American Societies

Around the world, warriors of innumerable cultures independently discovered a shared truth: shields are useful. Obviously, shields can be very helpful in protecting a warrior from physical harm, but what if the shield could also protect their spiritual power as well? While many warring cultures had shields, those of the Amerindian nations of North America were unique in their range of protection. Far from simply a matter of preventing bodily harm, these objects shielded warriors from all manners of spiritual threats. In a world of powerful spiritual forces that intervened in the daily lives of these cultures, shield were a pretty useful item to have.

History and Range

From what we can tell, shields have a long history in Amerindian cultures. Warfare was an important form of interaction between the numerous societies of North America, but objects change in meaning over time. The shield, as it would most commonly be used, really came into its own with the arrival of horses in North America. Amerindian nations, especially those of the Great Plains, adopted horses into their cultural systems and rebuilt their systems of warfare around them. Thus, the shield really became a major part of Amerindian warfare in the 19th century, as part of horse-based warfare.

While shields were used widely by Amerindian nations across the continent, today we'll mostly be focusing on the shields of Plains Indian groups. These were the cultures to develop the most common understanding of shields in both physical and magical warfare, but it is always important to remember that none of these ideas were completely universal across the diverse range of Amerindian cultures on the continent.

War Shields

Shields served two distinct purposes in Amerindian nations, so naturally there are two main types of shields. The first is the war shield. A war shield is similar to shields of other nations in the world; it was a strong object used to protect the warrior from physical harm.

Amerindian war shields were relatively small, roughly 20-24 inches in diameter, since they were meant to be used on horseback without limiting the warrior's range of movement. They were made of dried and processed bison skin, hardened with glue made from the bison's hooves. The more layers of skin and glue a shield had, the stronger it was. War shields were often decorated with symbolic items like feathers or furs, as well as war trophies like pieces of human scalps.

Comanche warrior with shield
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Now, shields are generally designed to protect warriors from specific forms of weapons. In this case, that meant arrows. Amerindian shields were primarily designed to protect against enemy arrows and were used in a specific way. Rather than just hiding behind the shield, Amerindian warriors would have to predict the trajectory of the arrow and adjust the shield to block the arrow at an angle so that the projectile would glance off. Since the shield was smaller, this meant that the warrior was constantly moving the shield around; it wasn't an object that could be used by holding still and hiding behind it. According to sources from the time, many Amerindian warriors became extraordinarily adept at this and in fact translated this skill into deflecting bullets from rifles with a high degree of effectiveness as well.

Medicine Shields

War shields were designed for use in physical warfare, but Amerindian warriors carried a second shield as well. This was the medicine shield, which protected the spiritual power and energy of the warrior from cosmological and magical forces. The medicine shield was never used in battle but was more often attached to the horse to provide spiritual protection as the warrior rode to the battle. Since it wasn't used in physical warfare, it didn't have to be as hard and was made by stretching animals skins over a wooden hoop.

Medicine shield from the Southwest
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