When writer Washington Irving traveled the Plains during the 19th century, he described the Osages as “the finest looking Indians in the West.” Tribal members are exceptionally tall and it is not unusual for men to be over six feet. The artist George Catlin said the Osages were the tallest race of people he had ever seen. Early accounts of Spanish Conquistadors likened them to the giants of the Old Testament.
Osage men shaved their heads, including the eyebrows and for ceremonial occasions painted designs on their face, arms and legs with natural dyes. Warriors held themselves with a dignified bearing of grace and nobility. Their physical strength was revered and some are said to have run as much as fifty miles without rest. His shield is made from the hump of a buffalo and often included totems that would benefit the owner in battle and in life. The two birds depicted represent those totems.
A native Oklahoman, Matthew Bearden earned a bachelor’s of art in commercial art from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah in 1992. He then continued his art studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation, but his family history also includes Kickapoo, Blackfoot and Lakota Sioux ancestry. His interest in the Osage started long before college: he designed the cover of his high school yearbook incorporating the image of an Osage Warrior. Bearden works to make the details of his paintings as accurate as possible, but also allows his creativity to take him beyond strict adherence to established rules.
“I’ve worked with subjects other than people but I keep coming back to my Native roots. The Osages have also been a strong influence in my painting. They have been able to keep a strong grasp on their old ways and their summer dances are a high point of interest in my hometown.”
Bearden was awarded Best of Show at the Red Earth Festival in 2005 and was the featured artist at the Tulsa Indian Art Festival in 2006. He has participated in juried shows at the Trail of Tears Art Show in Tahlequah, the Indian Summer Festival in Bartlesville, the Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Dallas Indian Art Festival. This piece was purchased for the Oklahoma Judicial Center collection.
Source: Southern Plains Indian Museum, “Rhythm of the Plains” exhibit brochure; Citizen Potawatomi Nation, June 2, 2010; Personal correspondence interview, March 2013.