Indigenous Heraldry

Although coats of arms originated in Europe and customarily follow European forms, there has been some movement toward adapting the emblems of indigenous people to heraldry.

My father, Ridge Durand (1933-2002) was a Lakota pejuta wikasa (”medicine man”) and a member of the Spotted Eagle Medicine Men’s Society. He was a hunkpa (”blood brother”) of Pete Catches (Petaga Yuha Mani) (1912-1993), chief Eagle medicine man of the Lakota. Uncle Pete has been credited with reviving the Sundance ceremony among the Lakota, and in 1964 was named Sundance Chief by the tribal council.

As a medicine man, he used a ceremonial shield. In heraldic terms, that shield might be blazoned as:

On a round shield Argent an American bald eagle close Proper upon on a branch from which depends four feathers Gules, Argent, Vert and Or, and in chief sinister four pairs of feathers each pair one Gules tipped Sable and one Or tipped Sable conjoined in chief at their quills by four hurts.

Acceptance of Indigenous Heraldry 

Despite the fact that indigenous people use personal emblems on a shield, their proto-heraldry has not gained universal acceptance. Many traditionalists feel that the result is not heraldry. David Pittman Johnson of The American College of Heraldry was a proponent of this view. He explained his philosophy in the following way:

“Many traditionalists consider these to be regrettable prostitutions of the ancient heraldic standards and traditions. Official offices of Arms may at times employ design compositions which in no way reflect the thousand year old tradition in armory. Obviously, heraldry grows and modifies over the centuries, but many feel that to introduce designs which have no reference whatever to standard heraldry is not heraldry at all. If one can take a totally unrelated design and place it on a shield, or on some other device, that does not, in the mind of many, make it heraldry. One gentleman made the remark that if one dressed a coal miner in a pilot’s uniform, that does not make him a pilot.” [Dr. David P. Johnson, Private Communication, June 6, 2003]

In contrast, the heraldic authorities in both Canada and South Africa have encouraged the assimilation of indigenous traditions into heraldry.


  • Tate Wakpa Wanbli (Ridge Earl Durand), ceremonial shield (circa 1979).
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