A fine Cheyenne shield and covers
Lot 1441
A fine Cheyenne shield and covers
US$ 150,000 - 200,000
£ 110,000 - 150,000

Native American Art

9 Dec 2013, 11:00 PST

San Francisco

Lot Details
A fine Cheyenne shield and covers A fine Cheyenne shield and covers A fine Cheyenne shield and covers A fine Cheyenne shield and covers
A fine Cheyenne shield and covers
The thick shield of buffalo rawhide, pierced at front and strung with hide straps on the reverse; the principal cover painted with four birds oriented towards the concentric circle center, a crescent indicated overhead, the perimeter a sawtooth band, a wood hoop divided into blue and red trade cloth semicircles suspended from the top; the second cover emblazoned with a gathering of seven small orbs within a circular central display, four concentric globes orbit about the edge.
diameter 17 1/2 - 18 1/4in


  • Provenance:
    Baker University, Old Castle Museum, Baker, KS, donated to the Museum collection in 1868 by Ruth Baldwin (1832-1894); Howard Roloff, British Columbia; Laura Fisher Collection, sold (as two separate lots) at Christie's on January 12, 2006, lot 160 and 153

    Galante, Gary, and Roloff, Howard B., editor, 1987, unpaginated: referred to as "The Baker shield, circa 1830-1850", illustrated front and back views, as well as represented in monotone on the cover


    This shield is decidedly a masterwork of Cheyenne iconography. The complex imagery generated by the original visionary's experience, revealed to him as he sought spiritual enlightenment and guidance during a Vision Quest, relates directly to broad Cheyenne cosmological concepts and the cultural precepts of his people. We cannot know if the vision seeker painted the pair of covers, or whether— as was a common practice, he related his vision to another and entrusted to that person the task of painting a visual representation of the vision received. We are left to strive to understand and to interpret the iconography— the figures, their stylization, their arrangement in regard to each other, the respective colors utilized, and all other aspects of this shield and covers that date from the mid 19th Century. Plains Indian rawhide shields generally had two covers of tanned skin (often of pronghorn antelope), one placed over the other. In many cases the shield itself bore no painted symbols. Rather, as with this shield, the inner cover was the primary pallet. The outer cover might bear some symbolism, again as in this instance. However, when the owner-combatant carried his shield into battle, a practice was to remove the outer cover at an auspicious moment, and thereby release the daunting power embodied in the images- a burst of combative energy thus directed at the foe.

    As is characteristic of Cheyenne shields, a long strap of tanned otter skin with the fur intact was attached to the reverse side of this shield, and served to transport or suspend the shield as needed. Many American Indian people viewed the otter as a totemic shield of sorts in and of itself, and enlisted its support in this manner. It is widely understood that either male or female bison most often furnished the hide for shields themselves— the general idea being that hide from the hump was favored. Actually, instead of the top of the hump, it was hide from the side of the hump/shoulder area that was thickest and therefore choice material. However, it is not generally known that at times hide from other areas of the buffalo body was also chosen for shields— the groin area in particular. In fact, remnants of nipples can be seen on some shields, as well as the penile opening of a bull. This feature is known to the author to be present on a small number of Cheyenne shields in museum collections. In every instance, the opening is located below the center of the shield proper, and can by understood to embody and when needed exert a quantum of the vigorous energy of the bison bull during the rut. On this shield, the closed rent or opening surrounded by compacted wrinkles of the hide seen in this very location is likely an example of this feature. Be it noted that the skin side of hide is the front of the shield.

    The lesser amount of imagery on the outer cover of this shield is none the less potent. Equidistant at four points around the outer margin, four small discs painted solid red, each outlined by a narrow green line, demonstrate a concept sacred to most North American Indian people— the Four Directions/the expanse of the universe as known to them, each direction being the source of diverse types of energy, seasons of the year, and possible effects on their lives. In former times, as well as at present, Indian people of many areas utilize red paint to denote things that they consider to be sacred and possessing of inherent power. In addition, at the center of the outer cover, the dark painted disc with seven small circles within undoubtedly represents the Pleiades. Because the appearance of this astral constellation in North America occurs from spring to autumn, at least in former times the Cheyenne originally being semi-horticulturalists ( and perhaps other tribes), viewed the Pleiades as a signum demarcating the growing season of garden plants— a propitious part of the year.

    Immediate to the eye is the complex imagery of this shield's inner cover that depicts the essence of the visionary's dream. Four avian figures as individuals are painted the traditional colors of the Four Directions. They represent the spirit beings of their given Direction. In addition to their feathered bodies, tails and wings, human hands extend from the base of their wing pointer feathers. Truly these are marvelous beings that could transform or present themselves in various ways— all to support the shield bearer. They appear to be flying into a dark void in the center of the cover that might represent night or deep water. The green circle outlined with red might represent the sun. In fact, a representation of an eclipse (that mysterious celestial phenomenon) may well be intended. In addition, the green-painted zigzag border probably represent the mountains around the center of the world, and the light-colored bands and narrow blue line bordering the green indicate the power of the Maheyono (spirit beings) had over these mountains. (Nagy, personal communication 10-2013). A crescent moon is seen at top/center of numerous Cheyenne shields. Most likely the green crescent on this inner cover is this very emblem. However, of note is the rainbow-like outline composed of narrow yellow, blue, white and red lines. Again, these relate to the Four Directions. If indeed this outline is intended as a rainbow, it could be considered as a trap to halt oncoming danger or missiles fired or weapons directed at the shield bearer, for at least the Cheyenne Indians envisioned the rainbow as a "trap" that stops thunderstorms that on the open prairie can potentially be devastating. The representation of a scalp composed of a small wooden hoop filled half and half with navy blue and red woolen cloth is suspended from directly above this crescent moon image. Widespread Plains Indian tradition had it that enemy trophy scalps be marked in this way, either painted or covered with cloth in solid red, or red/blue.

    In closing, the author wishes to express gratitude to Imre Nagy for conferring on symbolic aspects, and for his fine essay, CHEYENNE SHIELDS and Their Cosmological Background. In addition, the author recognizes the following, among others, for their contributions to our knowledge of the Cheyenne people: Father Peter J. Powell, Gary Galante, Winfield Coleman, Michael Kan, Mike Cowdrey, John Lukavic, Bill Wierzbowski, and John Moore.

    BENSON L. LANFORD October 2013
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