Native American Heraldry

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Heraldry – Among the tribes of the great plains, and perhaps of other sections, there existed a well-defined system of military and family designation comparable with the heraldic system of Europe. It found its chief expression in the painting and other decoration of the shield and tipi, with the body paint and adornment of the warrior himself, and was guarded by means of religious tabu and other ceremonial regulations. The heraldic tipis, which might number one-tenth of the whole body, usually belonged to prominent families by hereditary descent. The shield belonged to the individual warrior, but several warriors might carry shields of the same origin and pattern at the same time, while so far as known the heraldic tipi had no contemporary duplicate. Both tipi and shield were claimed as the inspiration of a vision, and the design and decoration were held to be in accordance with the instructions imparted to the first maker by the protecting spirit of his dream. The tipi is commonly named from the most notable feature of the painting, as the buffalo tipi, star tipi, etc. The shield was more often known by the name of the originator and maker of the series, but certain more noted series were known as the buffalo shield, bird shield, sun shield, etc., the medicine or protecting power being believed to come from the buffalo, bird, or sun spirits respectively. Shields of the same origin were usually but not necessarily retained in the possession of members of the family of the original maker, and handed down in time to younger members of the family, unless buried with the owner. A certain price must be paid and certain tabus constantly observed by the owner of either shield or tipi. Thus the heir to a certain heraldic tipi in the Kiowa tribe must pay for it a captive taken in war, while those who carried the bird shield were forbidden to approach a dead bird, and were under obligation on killing their first enemy in battle to eat a portion of his heart. Those of the same shield generally used a similar body paint and headdress, pony decorations, and war cry, all having direct reference to the spirit of the original vision, but no such regulation appears to have existed in connection with any tipi. The flag carried on the upper Columbia by the followers of the prophet Smohalla is an instance of the adaptation of Indian symbolism to the white man’s usage (Mooney in 14th Rep. B. A. E., 1896).

Among the Haida and some other tribes of the N. W. coast, according to Swanton and other authorities, is found the germ of a similar system. Here, in many cases, the clan totem, or perhaps the personal manito of the individual, has evolved into a crest which persons of the highest rank, i. e. of greatest wealth, are privileged to figure by carving or painting upon their totem poles, houses, or other belongings, tattooing upon their bodies, or painting upon their bodies in the dance, on payment of a sufficient number of potlatch gifts to secure recognition as chiefs or leading members of the tribe. The privilege is not hereditary, the successor of the owner, usually his sister’s son, being obliged to make the same ceremonial payment to secure the continuance of the privilege. (J. M.)

MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. Web. 27 January 2015. - Last updated on Jul 18th, 2012


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