Distinctive, visually appealing shields are among many useful and beautiful items crafted by Native American people over the past hundreds or even thousands of years. Ancient shields are far rarer than pottery and stone artifacts due to the deterioration of the highly perishable materials used in their construction. However, some examples of Native American shields dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are in collections held by museums, tribal authorities, and private individuals. Most Native American tribes utilized some form of a shield, but the shields created by the Navajo, the Comanche, the Apache, and other large Western tribes tend to stand out due to their size, beauty, and complexity. Many of the ancient shields that have survived to the current day were made by members of these groups.
Traditional Native American shields generally fall into the following categories.
Native American war shields ranged from 15 to 24 inches in diameter and were designed for use by warriors on horseback. As defensive articles intended for deployment in actual warfare, war shields were usually composed of two layers of hide held together by sinew stitching or a natural adhesive derived from animal hooves. Grass or other stuffing material between the two layers served to make the shield more durable and better able to stand up to arrows, knives, spears, and clubs. The shields were decorated with painted figures, feathers, fur, shells, stones, and other natural materials of personal or tribal significance. In later years, woven fabric and paper found their way into some shields, and metal bells, beads, and other trade goods were used as embellishment.
Medicine shields were also designed to make their appearance on the battlefield, but they offered protection that went far beyond basic injury prevention. They were instead considered mystical objects that supplied spiritual protection as well. Evidence suggests that some medicine shields were stored in remote locations far from the warrior’s residence or village, and many were kept covered until the moment of battle to preserve their special supernatural powers. Because medicine shields weren’t expected to withstand serious battlefield damage, surviving examples are often much smaller and more decorative than their utilitarian war shield counterparts.
Ceremonial shields are similar to medicine shields in that they weren’t intended to stand up to battlefield conditions. A ceremonial Native American shield may have been viewed in a manner similar to a European family crest, and they were possibly used as gifts to memorialize close personal relationships or treaty agreements. Some ceremonial shields consist only of an exterior frame with various diagonal and center embellishments while others feature a complete hide- or fabric-covered surface with personalized decorations.
Kachina House offers a diverse selection of Native American shields produced by modern-day tribal artisans. These shields have been crafted using similar materials and methods as those employed by previous generations of shield-makers, and are sure to be attractive additions to any modern Native American art and heirloom collection.