Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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.
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 shields were created as parts of sacred rituals, and were individualized in accordance with various spiritual quests or totemic animals associated with that person's spiritual power and journeys. Very often, the designing of medicine shields involved dream interpretation by trained spiritual leaders, fasting, dancing, and even physical journeys. At the end, various images or symbols unique to that warrior were painted or added to the shield. While the physical war shield itself provided protection, with medicine shields it was the images and symbols on the shield, not the physical object, that provided protection.
These symbols, often including various animals, were meant to protect the spiritual power of the warrior and also act as spiritual guides and guardians that would help the warrior complete his spiritual journey through life. As a result, the medicine shield was updated and changed throughout a warrior's life, with new items or symbols being added to it to reflect completed journeys, new challenges, or changes in spiritual status. It was a shield unique from any other, and definitely not one you'd want to ever be without.
Most Amerindian nations of North America were centered around warfare, and like other warring cultures of the world they developed shields for protection. However, these shields were unique. The first kind of shield was the war shield, which protected the warrior from physical harm. It was made of bison hides and glue, was relatively small, and designed for use on horseback and active defense against projectiles. The other kind of shield was the medicine shield, which protected the spiritual power of the warrior against magical forces. Medicine shields were unique to each warrior, and based on their individual spiritual journeys. With these shields, it was the symbols, not the physical object, that provided protection. With both war and medicine shields, however, Amerindian warriors could charge into battle, protected against threats both physical and magical.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack