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On "The Shield That Came Back"

Bart Brinkman

N. Scott Momaday's "The Shield that Came Back," from the poetry sequence, "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields" takes as one of its central metaphors the Plains Indian warrior shield. Made from the thick chest skin of a male buffalo, the warrior shield is painted with talismanic-- often animal--symbols, such as birds and deer. It was commonly believed that the design on the shield, rather than the shield itself, would protect the warrior. In making the shield a prominent metaphor in his poem, Momaday places "The Shield that Came Back" within a long Indian tradition, drawing on one of its most important cultural markers. But the shield is also suggestive of Western tradition. The shield has been a prominent Western image at least as far back as the depiction of Achilles' shield in the Iliad and has resonated through much of the literature of the West. In suggesting both Indian and Western traditions, the shield as central metaphor and Momaday's poem in general signals its need, and the need of the Modern American Indian, to negotiate both of these traditions.

For a poem ostensibly about a shield, however, there is a disproportionate emphasis on a fan. It is, in fact, one of the jobs of the poem to work out the identification between the fan and the shield. The poem opens with Turning Around's instructions to his son Yellow Grass that, "'You must kill/ thirty scissortails and make me a fan of their feathers.'" The fan that Yellow Grass is to make--which will require a great amount of skill and effort both in hunting the scissortails and weaving together their feathers--will resemble his father's shield. As Yellow Grass tells Turning Around, of the blue and black and white and orange beadwork, "'Those are the colors of your shield." And the "tightly bunched and closely matched" feathers of the fan "could be spread wide in a disc, like a shield." In its shape and color, the fan is patterned after the shield, just as the son is patterned after the father.

After Turning Around is killed on a raiding expedition to the Pueblo country, Yellow Grass retrieves his father's shield "but the fan could not be found." The poem does not reveal what happened to the fan, whether it was lost, stolen, or kept close to the father, but much later, when Yellow Grass was an old man, he told the story of the shield to his grandson Handsome Horse, with the explanation "'You see, the shield was more powerful than the fan, for the shield came back and the fan did not. Some things,/ if they are very powerful, come back. Remember that. For us, in/ this camp, that is how to think of the world." The moral to Yellow Grass's story is that tradition is powerful and will come back to protect them. It is important for his grandson to remember that "in this camp" as they struggle through a marginalized existence encapsulated by Western tradition.

But the poem offers a means of resisting Yellow Grass's moral. The fan can be seen as not only an excellent imitation of the shield, but as its successor, an object in its own right and one that is lauded by the father. Although the shield returns, it is no longer necessary because Turning Around is now dead. But the fan, as a successor to the shield, is lost in the world, just as Yellow Grass as successor to his father is also lost. The son cannot be protected by his father's shield, but must recover his own fan just as his camp cannot be protected by tradition but must identify with it to make something new. The poem (which is itself not unlike the fan in its imitation and transformation of the past) suggests that, rather than looking back to traditional ways to be saved, one must use traditional ways to look forward. This is the way that the modern American Indian can survive in the face of Western tradition and begin to draw that tradition into its own.

Copyright 2004 by Bart Brinkman

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