This Northern Plains shield, measuring 19 inches in diameter, is of unique construction. While the shield proper is a thin, sheet-iron disk, the back is rawhide, and the two pieces are fastened together with four copper rivets. The rawhide backing added to the strength of the shield and also provided a foundation to which arm loops and a carrying strap were attached.
The face of the shield is thin buckskin, perhaps antelope. The rainbow across the top evokes a prayer to change the enemies’ missiles and render them harmless. The feathers probably refer to the shield’s figurative representation of the sun by symbolizing its rays. The Sand hill crane head attached to the center is likely a personal protector of the owner.
The crane, a bird that is heard long before it can be seen, often flies at night, traveling with unerring confidence to its destination. The tinkling dog bell reinforces this interpretation since it would represent the actual voice of the majestic bird’s spirit. Although for Indians on the Missouri the use of iron for shields was suggested as long ago as the beginning of the nineteenth century, this is the first such shield I have seen. Sioux winter counts refer to warriors using iron shields or wearing iron helmets. One of the great Pawnee stories tells of a seemingly invincible Cheyenne who would draw the Pawnees’ fire, then chase them down one by one and slay them. When he was finally killed by a boy’s lucky arrow shot into his eye socket, the Pawnees were amazed to find that under his scalp shirt the Cheyenne wore iron plate armor, arranged like overlapping fish scales, riveted to a leather jerkin.
All is fair in war, and every man’s personal medicine could use an edge.
Illustrated in Spirits in the Art, by James A. Hanson pg.19.