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"I dreamed of the elk": Iron Tail's muslin dance shield.

The subject of this article is an interesting painted muslin dance shield with classic animal dreamer society imagery, originally owned and, not inconceivably, made by the famous Oglala Sioux chief Iron Tail, or Sinte Maza.

Much has been written about the heavy rawhide war shields traditionally used by Plains warriors as protection in battle. Such shields were made from a circular piece cut from the thick hide of a bull buffalo, usually from the area around the side of the neck or shoulder. The rawhide disc was subjected to a process of shrinking with the aid of hot steam, resulting in a further thickening of the hide, before finally being de-haired with the aid of a hide scraper. The resulting shield was strong and durable, and an ideal form of defense.


The protection afforded by such shields, however, was not only physical, deflecting enemies' arrows in combat. The symbolic designs painted upon its surface, or on the soft hide cover, were highly personal to its owner. Inspired by dreams, these designs were considered to give powerful magical protection when carried. Additionally, ornaments and medicine charms in the form of feathers, bird or animal skins and other specially chosen objects were attached to the rawhide shield or its cover. Shields of this kind were used by all Plains groups, and were usually slung around the neck and over one shoulder by means of a loop-like strap.





Of course, by the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the need for thick rawhide shields as protection in battle was but a memory. Instead, a few tribes, including the Teton Sioux, began making more lightweight versions of soft hide or muslin stretched over a wooden hoop. These so-called 'dance shields', it can be said, emphasize the enduring importance to Plains men of personal dream-inspired designs as talismans of power, and their inherently protective function. Moreover, they demonstrate the ability of Plains Indian peoples to modify the use of certain important objects from earlier warrior culture, reinventing them for a new form of use in sedentary reservation life.

From the 1880s, when large numbers of Sioux performers famously began to be recruited to tour with showmen such as William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in his traveling Wild West show, lightweight muslin dance shields were popularly used as part of Indian equestrian accoutrements. They featured prominently in parades, mock battles and mounted horse raids. Portable and easily stored in travel trunks with their owners' traditional regalia, such shields show up in a host of photographs of the period. (Fig.3 & 4)




In spite of their relatively fragile construction, numerous examples of lightweight dance shields can be found in museums and private collections. Interestingly, Clark Wissler, in his study of Sioux protective imagery, illustrates two such examples which he describes as "models of shields", presumably making the distinction between this and the heavier rawhide type used in traditional warfare.[1]

Iron Tail's Shield--Construction

In terms of construction and decoration, the dance shield illustrated in Figs.1A & B is typical of many lightweight muslin dance shields made by the Sioux in the late nineteenth century and used by many Indian recruits of "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West and other similar show companies.

More oval than round, it measures 43 cm in maximum diameter and is constructed from a circular piece of muslin stretched over a bentwood hoop frame. The hoop, rectangular in section, is secured at the ends by some kind of metal staple, probably iron. It is interesting to note that the wooden hoop has been carefully smoothed and the edges rounded slightly to reduce abrasion to the muslin.

The muslin cover is gathered at the back of the shield by means of a generous hem around its perimeter, through which is threaded a long, twisted, two-ply muslin cord. The effect of the ruching creates a series of radiating pleats, as shown in Fig.1B. The cord, effectively a drawstring, extends out to form the strap by which the shield is carried across the owner's shoulder.

Iron Tail's Shield--Decoration

The designs painted on the front surface of Iron Tail's dance shield comprise a central figure of an elk within an arrangement of four circles. The elk is drawn with antlers and a dark-painted body with yellow rump and tail. Significantly, the lower legs of the animal are not drawn--a symbolically relevant detail to which we will return in due course. The circles are painted in yellow and outlined in a dark blue-green, verging on black.

Directly above, and touching upon the top two painted circle designs, is a crescent-like arc, deep red in color, and the remaining background field is colored overall with red pigment, thinly applied. This red ground is somewhat faded from how it must originally have been when first made, and appears tonally more vivid on the reverse of the shield.

Attached just above the center of the top two circles are two eagle feathers. The golden eagle feather, on the left, is in fragmentary condition; the bald eagle feather, on the right, is partly stripped, the extreme tip wrapped with dyed porcupine quill. The feathers have been prepared in standard fashion: the quills spliced and inserted into the hollow to create a loop for attachment.

The Elk Cult

The designs featured on Iron Tail's muslin shield are likely to have been inspired by a vision and suggest that its owner was probably a member of the Elk Cult, sometimes referred to as the Elk Society or Elk Dreamer Society. This animal dreamer society is discussed by Fletcher in her analysis of Indian ceremonial,[2] and later by Wissler in his study of Oglala Sioux dream cults.[3] Densmore documents a number of songs associated with the Elk Cult in her work on Teton Sioux music.[4] The society is also mentioned by Lowie for the Dakota.[5]

The Sioux had several animal dreamer societies, among them the Buffalo, Bear, and Wolf cults. Variations of the Elk Cult also existed, devoted to the black-tailed deer and long-tailed deer, both probably subdivisions of the Elk Cult. Each society had its own associated regalia.

Elk Dreamer imagery, of course, is commonly depicted in Sioux art, including painting and ledger drawing. In the medium of quillwork, often featured is the stylized antlered head of a bull elk, usually on a background of quilled stripes.


The male elk was considered by the Sioux to have special powers over love and courtship. Elk Cult members observed the way in which a bull elk would fight to the death to protect its mate, and it was believed that such powers of "elk medicine" were transferred to men who dreamt of this animal. Because of his powers over affairs of the heart, an ElkDreamer was thought to be instrumental in matchmaking and the settling of marital disputes. Brave Buffalo, one of Densmore's Sioux informants, observed that elks gave him the power to find medicinal herbs for use in treating the sick.[6]

Wissler describes that any man who dreamed of an elk or the Elk Cult itself was required to perform a special ceremony and give a feast for fellow society members.[7] For this purpose, a special tipi was duly set up, and Elk Cult members donned distinctive trapezoidal masks made of elk hide with trimmed branches wrapped in otter fur to represent the velvet-covered antlers of the immature elk. Their bodies were painted in yellow, their hands and feet in black, with black paint on their breast and back. [8] Black-tailed deer dreamers, restricted to younger Sioux men, painted themselves in blue and black; while long-tailed deer dreamers, (not described in Wissler's 1912 study), painted in red, like Bear Cult members.

Each of the Elk Cult dancers carried an elk fur-covered wooden hoop decorated with an "elk herb" (wild bergamot), said to be favored by wild elk, and popular with young Sioux men for its fragrant smell.[9] At its center is a mirror, held in position by crossed cords, which is understood to represent the elk's heart. These hoops were believed to have magical powers and were regarded by their owners as sacred.[10] They were either carried in the hand as shown in Figs. 8-10 or, in some cases, worn around the neck and over one shoulder. Some members attached medicine charms such as bear claws, eagle talons, deer hooves or grasshoppers, all regarded as "ammunition" to combat evil.
 These [hoops] are believed to have magical powers
 and to throw or shoot their influence into all they
 oppose; so, as they dance about the camp circle, they
 stamp a foot and flash sunlight from the mirror at
 persons in sight. This is supposed to put the victims in
 the power of the elk cult.[11]

As part of Oglala Elk Cult ceremonial, members prepare a special love medicine charm known as "woman charmer medicine" or Win C'uwa. Wissler describes this process and its associated ceremonial as follows:
 For this they may take the white part of the eye of an elk
 or part of the heart, the inside gristle from the projection
 of the fetlocks, or the hind feet, and mix it with medicine.
 The flute and the mirror are regarded as powerful
 accessories in using such charms. At the feast the elk
 dreamers are all invited and also those possessing
 "woman charmer" medicine may attend.[12]




Two women of good virtue (virgins) are then invited to lead the dancers into the camp, their hair worn loose, wearing their finest dresses and each carrying a sacred medicine pipe and a forked stick. (See pictographic drawing by famous Hunkpapa warrior, Rain-in-the Face, illustrated in Fig.8). They are followed by the Elk Cult members, imitating the actions of the elk in accordance with their dream and carrying their ceremonial hoops and mirrors which project their power and "catch the eye of a girl and bring back her heart".

Iron Tail's Shield--Symbolism

Returning, once again, to Iron Tail's muslin dance shield and its associated imagery. In the worldview of many Plains peoples, of course, there exists an essentially spiritual relationship between the natural, supernatural and human worlds. This spiritual connection manifests itself in the nature of the designs painted upon the dance shield.

The quadruped figure depicted at the center of the shield's composition (Fig.1A) is clearly intended to represent an elk, but almost certainly a bull elk in 'spirit' form. The very fact that its legs are not fully drawn is undoubtedly significant--a detail frequently employed by Sioux artists to depict animals in spirit rather than earthly form. This seems to be an attempt by the artist to emphasize the creature's supernatural state, or its transformation from the earthly world into the spiritual world.

The Elk Dreamer who dreams of the elk is, in the words of Joseph Epes Brown, "no longer encountering the phenomenal animal, but rather archetypal essences appearing in animal forms".[13] Likewise, by donning traditional societal regalia, Elk Cult members were believed to transcend the physical human world, entering the spiritual world, thereby assuming the identity of the Elk, or what Epes Brown calls the animal's "spirit principle".[14] This shift of identity from human into elk spirit form is conveyed in an Elk Cult song by One Feather (Wiyaka Wanzila), one of Densmore's Sioux informants: (Densmore 1918)

An elk am I A short life I am living [15]

The four circular devices on the shield doubtless signify the hoops carried in Sioux elk ceremonies--the very emblem of the Elk Cult. Significantly, they are painted in yellow--a color laden with symbolic meaning to Elk Cult members.

In traditional Sioux culture, similar circles or "medicine hoop" designs were frequently painted on clothing as protective devices against harm. Of crucial significance on Iron Tail's shield is the actual placement of the hoops, probably representing the cardinal points; and the number of them (four), this number of course being considered sacred in Sioux belief.[16]

The quilled medicine hoops worn by Sioux men, sometimes referred to as medicine wheels, also had a symbolic function of protecting the wearer from bullets, arrows, or other dangers.[17]

In addition to its important symbolic protective function, however, the hoop itself was essentially seen as a transformational symbol--literally the portal or entry device to another spiritual world. In her fascinating study of ledger drawings by late nineteenth century Sioux artist Black Hawk, Janet Berlo describes the hoops used by members of certain Sioux animal dreamer societies, including the Elk Cult, as "hoops of transformation".[18] The drawings, acquired in exchange for credit at William E. Caton's trading store at Cheyenne River Reservation, include several interesting depictions of cult members carrying hoops and undergoing a mysterious process of metamorphosis into spirit animals during their society ceremonials. This same magical phenomenon of transformation was also noted by Wissler in the following description of Elk Cult members' feet making elk tracks rather than human footprints upon the earth where they have walked:
 In the ceremonies a member may get up, act like an elk
 and run about the tipi. When the people look at his
 tracks, they see genuine elk tracks. When a new
 member is indicated, they set up a tipi in the woods far
 away from the regular camp circle. There the members
 paint themselves yellow and black from elbow down
 and from knee down and put on the headdress. They
 spread fine earth over the floor of the tipi and walk out
 so as to make elk tracks. [19]

This idea of transformation is the subject of a pictographic drawing by Rain-in-the Face, illustrated in Fig.8. It shows an Elk Cult member partly transformed into a bull elk. He is depicted carrying a fur-covered hoop and wearing trapezoidal mask with antlers, while his actual body appears as that of an elk.

Another important element of the composition, commonly seen on Sioux shields, is the arc of deep red at the very top of Iron Tail's shield, which may be a representation of spiritual power from the sky.

Iron Tail's Shield--Provenance

Accompanying Iron Tail's muslin dance shield is an original handwritten note in pencil, signed by Frederick B. Hackett in his own hand. The note, illustrated in Figs. 6A&B, reads as follows: "Shield use [sic] by Chief Iron Tail - / as coat of arms = made by him in / canvass [sic] as duplicate to original / F.B. Hackett"

Frederick B. Hackett (c.1884-1975) was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of a Western scout. As a boy, he had listened through the bedroom keyhole to conversations between Colonel Cody and his father. Tantalized by colorful stories of the American West, he ran away from home at the age of sixteen and spent a period working as a cowboy and guide on a ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Some years later, he is reported as having worked as a ration clerk at Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota. In 1905, Hackett married his wife Lila and settled in Chicago, working as an elevator safety engineer, a career he maintained for many years until retirement.

Through his early contact with the legendary Wild West showman, Hackett finally took up Cody's offer of working with hisWild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Both Hackett and his wife Lila signed up for the 1914, 1915 and 1916 seasons. Hackett chased Indians around the show arena in rough-riding exhibitions, and also managed the Sioux performers, while Lila performed in riding and shooting acts.

Over the years, Hackett built up a sizeable collection of historical Indian and Western artifacts, photographs, and ephemera. In 1944, he was among the founder members of the Westerners' Chicago Corral. His summers were usually spent at Pine Ridge, where he had many Sioux friends. He died on 16th February 1975, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

By 1914, when Fred Hackett first recruited to work with Cody's show, it seems he had already known the celebrated Oglala Sioux chief, Iron Tail for approaching twenty years. During the three seasons he and Lila spent working with Cody's Wild West, the two men became close friends and the chief eventually adopted Hackett as a son.

Iron Tail was probably born somewhere around 1847,[20] and reportedly fought at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. As has been widely discussed, the chief became a great friend and favorite of Colonel Cody's while working with his Wild West show. With Cody, he toured widely in the United States from at least 1898, traveled to Britain in 1904, and Europe from 1905-06. [21] A fascinating collection of photographs of Iron Tail and other Sioux Wild West performers was taken by Fred Hackett while touring in New York around 1915.

Tragically, Iron Tail died of pneumonia on a train to Chicago on May 29, 1916. His body was transferred to a hospital in Rushville, Nebraska, then to Pine Ridge Agency. He was buried at Holy RosaryMission cemetery on June 3rd, the funeral service arranged by Hackett under Cody's instruction. The Jesuit priest, Joseph Lindebner, S.J. officiated. One photograph of Iron Tail's funeral, possibly also taken by Hackett himself, appears in Fig.7 and shows Iron Tail family mourners.

It is not known precisely when and under what circumstances Hackett came to acquire the muslin shield from his friend Iron Tail. It may, of course, have been a gift from the old chief while the two men were in the employ of Cody's Wild West outfit, or may possibly have been given to him at the giveaway ceremony held on the occasion of Iron Tail's funeral.

The author is not aware of any documentary evidence relating specifically to Iron Tail's membership in the Oglala Elk Cult. Should readers know of any such information, however, it would of course be of great interest to this author.

The muslin dance shield discussed in this article is a classic example of the type in popular usage by Sioux men in the late nineteenth century. With its potent imagery of medicine hoops and the bull elk in spirit form, it is evocative of a time when, for a short while after the passing of the buffalo days, personal dreams of spirit animals still formed the basis of special animal dreamer cults.


The author would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of the late Dr Colin Taylor in authenticating the handwriting of Frederick B. Hackett. Taylor corresponded with Hackett in 1964 and was kind enough to supply the author with copies of the letters he had received from him.


Berlo, Janet Catherine. (2000). Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World. New York: George Braziller Inc, New York State Historical Association.

Densmore, Frances. (1918). Teton Sioux Music. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 61. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Epes Brown, Joseph. (1992). Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala Sioux. Shaftersbury, Dorset: Element Books Ltd.

Fletcher, Alice C. (1884). "Indian Ceremonies", in Report of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol.16. Salem, Mass.: Salem Press.

Lowie, Robert H. (1913). Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, New York. XI, II.

Miller, Jeff. (1974) Traveling With Buffalo Bill. American Indian Crafts & Culture, 8:4.

Sundstrom, Linea. (2004). Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Walker, James R. (ed. Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner). (1980). Lakota Belief and Ritual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wissler, Clark. (1907). Some Protective Designs of the Lakota. New York: Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, I:II.

--(1912). Societies and Ceremonial Associations in the Oglala Division of the Teton-Dakota. New York: Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural Histor.XI.


[1] Wissler, Some Protective Designs of the Lakota, V & VII

[2] Fletcher, Indian Ceremonies, pp.274-288

[3] Wissler, Societies and Ceremonial Associations, p.85-88

[4] Densmore, Teton Sioux Music, pp.293-98

[5] Lowie, Dance Associations of the Eastern Dakota, p.117

[6] Densmore, Teton Sioux Music, p.179

[7] Wissler, Societies and Ceremonial Associations, p.85

[8] Walker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, p.135

[9] Densmore, Teton Sioux Music, p.178

[10] In Teton Sioux Music, p. 295, Densmore attests that Elk Cult members likened their hoop, and actually described it as a "rainbow". "Part of the rainbow is visible in the clouds, and part disappears in the ground. What we see is in the shape of a hoop."

[11] Wissler, Societies and Ceremonial Associations, p.87

[12] Ibid, p.88

[13] Epes Brown, Animals of the Soul, p.3

[14] Ibid, p.68

[15] Densmore, Teton Sioux Music, p.297

[16] Wissler, in Some Protective Designs of the Lakota, p.41, describes the protective function of such circles or hoops painted on a so-called "bullet-proof shirt" of the type made for use in the Ghost Dance. The specimen in question is decorated with four circular designs, each with a large dot at its center.

"One of these designs is placed upon the right breast; another, directly opposite, upon the back of the garment; one upon the right shoulder; and one upon the left. These are so arranged , that, no matter from what point you see the wearer, one of the circular designs will be visible. These designs were recognized as symbols of the medicine hoop, and were supposed to have the power to protect the wearer from all harm. The idea of placing the designs so that one of them should always be between the wearer and the source of danger may be original with the owner of this shirt; but the number of them (four), and their arrangement according to the four directions, correspond to the common explanation of religious symbols."

[17] Ibid, p.42

[18] Berlo, Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers, p.45

[19] Wissler, Societies and Ceremonial Associations, p.88

[20] Walker, in Lakota Belief and Ritual, p.169, gives Iron Tail's birth date as circa 1860, but this is likely to be incorrect.

[21] Miller, Traveling With Buffalo Bill, pp.8-9; front and back covers

[22] Robert Murphy, personal communication, 2 December 2008

[23] Sundstrom, Storied Stone, p.183
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Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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