For the American Indian warrior, his shield afforded him at least equal, or perhaps more, spiritual protection as "armor" than it did actual physical protection. That is, the medicine or power emanating from a man's personal spiritual guardian embodied in both the shield and its cover supplied incalculable defensive protection, and offensive capability. In order to secure the energy afforded by his medicine, a man could characterize it in various ways by using talismans, symbols, likenesses, and even actual body parts of his benefactor. Or he might resort to abstract pictograms representing energy his protector held and imparted to him. Invariably, a shield, usually of bison rawhide, was supplied with a cover (of tanned hide). Usually the shield itself bore the most powerful expressions of the man's medicine. The cover might bear icons that alluded to the power entity hidden on the shield beneath the cover. At an appropriate moment in the heat of a charge into battle, the warrior might suddenly remove the shield cover instantaneously to release the power within his shield. Indeed, such a forceful display might cow an attacking adversary, the defenders thus gaining a measure of advantage.
A warrior's medicine in part consisted of the qualities possessed by any given animal or spirit being that he had taken on as his personal guardian or protector--whether by vision quest, purchase, or as an endowment from an older man retiring from warfare. A young man eager to launch a military career might petition an accomplished warrior to generate a medicine for him, or to pass to him his very own. Shields commonly played a part in the creation of the new medicine, and hence provided a ready canvas for displaying a guardian's image and any associated amulets. The qualities epitomized by any guardian animal automatically functioned as part of a warrior's medicine trove. A warrior felt completely confident in calling upon his spirit guardian by pronouncing the requisite utterances, or singing the prescribed song as a component of the appropriate rites associated with his medicine. With the spirit guardian in play, the warrior could tap into its respective faculties. Powerful animals figured prevalently as spiritual protectors, but other spirits or beings could also fill the role. The grizzly bear painted on the cover of lot 190 exemplifies one of the two most physically powerful animals known to Plains Indians. Grizzly strength, as well as it sagacity are legend. Here, the grizzly is depicted in a ferocious charge--head lowered, teeth bared, and front claws ready to slash at any opponent.
The cutout of a buffalo bull attached to lot 189 is made of bison rawhide with the epidermal side facing outward. It appears that the surface may have been further darkened from the usually browner color of bison epidermis. This could have been accomplished with blood, as was sometimes practiced on containers made of bison rawhide. Like the grizzly bear on lot 190, the buffalo is in the act of charging--a most forceful and aggressive moment. The bull's tail is arched as in the attack, and head lowered--his pronounced horns becoming formidable weapons. (See Wildschut and Ewers, 1960:fig.30.) The significance of the blue crescent, the red partial background, the yellow disc in front of the bull's face, and especially the lances and muskets aligned across the lower margin is subject to conjecture. However, note the significant details: trade lance blades, and triggers, firing mechanism, and ramrod on the guns.
Benson L. Lanford November 11, 2005