The Copper Shield: A Native American Women’s Way of Dealing with Conflict

Published in Friendly Woman, 1994.

When I moved to Oregon, I joined the Red Cedar Circle, a Native Northwest Coast traditional medicine practice called “Sisiwiss,” or sacred breath. From that tradition comes Copper Woman, who created the World.

Copper was money; breaking copper plates and giving away the pieces at a peschelt (potlatch) indicated wealth.

From the Copper Women’s Warrior Society came teachings about the Copper Shield. Women warriors were quite different from men: they carried a transforming shield made of polished copper.

It worked like a protective mirror, yet did not destroy an opponent by a fierce reflected image. Instead, accompanied by the bearer’s prayers and healing songs, it sent negative energy back out as positive energy, transformed by the loving warmth of copper.

This prayer shield provided both protection for the bearer and caring for the rest of the world she would encounter.

Some women in the Red Cedar Circle have made personal copper shields which they wear beneath their clothing when they go out in the world; others wear copper jewelry; still others just use copper shield imagery in prayer.

My own personal copper shield design was made for me by a friend in AVP, Alternatives to Violence Project, after I shared a personal experience of “TP” or Transforming Power in my life.

During the Anti-Vietnam War movement days in the late ’60s, when I lived in Chicago, I participated in many of the 57th Street Quaker Meeting activities.

On September 10, 1970, about 4 am, an intruder broke into my home, took a kitchen knife, crept past draft resistors and my three sleeping children, and tried to kill me. By some divine protection, the knife handle broke, so instead I was only badly beaten.

Afterwards I found a thin red trace cut across my neck. I had not seen my assailant, and to be honest, could not even tell the gender. I was petrified he/she would return.

Eventually I recovered my eyesight but not my courage. I was paranoid about knives. For years I wouldn’t allow them in the house, even though it made cooking difficult. I thought I would always be terrified of knives.

I knew I needed more protection than relying on just “God’s enveloping love,” but I couldn’t find the right model.

Self-defense classes were useful but not enough. Even though judo and ju jitsu use deflection — the opponents’ force against themselves — I wanted more than a reflective or deflective mirror.

Finally I read about the Copper Women’s Warrior Society in the Pacific Northwest and their Copper Shield which turned harm into good. I liked the idea, but I didn’t put it into practice. I didn’t know how.[break]

Yet the seed had been planted. About seven years later, in the midst of a speech class, a tall man armed with a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and a huge bowie knife in the other, burst through the classroom door and threatened to kill one of my students.

I saw the knife about eight inches from my left ear, but I did not think about it. I did not think about a protective copper shield either.

I was looking directly into his rodeo belt buckle. My right hand gently moved the belt buckle backwards toward the open door, while my mouth said firmly but reasonably, “Not in my class. You’ll have to wait outside until we’re finished.”

Surprised, he looked down at me, all five feet of me. I smiled up at him. The tension broke. Still swearing and waving his weapons, he slowly backed out the doorway and down the steps.

Then he vented his fury by smashing the windshields of the pickups parked in front, but he did not kill anyone.

I was amazed: me, no longer afraid of knives! Later when people asked how I had been so brave, I realized that I had had a copper shield between myself and that belt buckle. It had given me the courage to smile.

So now, using my friend’s design, I am making myself an actual Copper Shield from a copper plate about two feet high. Let me explain the design.

[insert design here]

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My left hand is raised in a welcoming, healing gesture. A cancer survivor, I am androgynous: my right breast is gone. In its place my right hand holds a black medicine stone from which springs a healing flower.

My Copper Shield is helping me regain personal power when confronting conflict. Hopefully, other women can adapt and use this Native American Copper Shield concept in their lives as well.

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