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Painted shield and cover decorated with an abstracted sun, moon and stars | Donald Ellis Gallery
19th century photograph of Chief San Juan of the Mescalero holding a similar shield and cover | Donald Ellis Gallery

Shield and Cover

Mescalero Apache
Southern Plains

ca. 1880

buffalo hide, red, blue, black and yellow paint

width: 16 ½"

Inventory # P3499



Private collection, New York State


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2010, pg. 37


Museum of the American Indian, Cat. No. 10/8191 - See: Dockstader, Frederick J. Indian Art In America. New York: Promontory Press, pl. 170

Shields were among the most important possessions of a Plains warrior in the 19th century. Like personal medicine, they were associated with particular spirit animals or patrons from which the warrior derived power and protection throughout his life. 

A precise interpretation of the pictographic representations on the present shield is difficult. The central design and surrounding figures appear to draw references to celestial constellations. For those not initiated into the knowledge, the full meaning of the imagery remains hidden. The shield’s public display thus serves to demonstrate status, rights, obligations, and privileges, thereby expressing the power of its owner.

Although we lack a precise collection history, stylistic features as well as the method of manufacture would suggest a Southern Plains origin. The present shield bears strong resemblance to a number of examples with known Apache collection history, one of which is now in the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C. In addition, a 19th-century albumen photograph depicts Chief San Juan of the Mescalero holding a strikingly similar shield and cover.

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