Awakening the spirit of pre 1840s Plains Indian Buffalo Culture, the work of non-Native artist OJ Laier III is inspired by this extraordinary time in history and carries with it his innate love of and deep respect for the Native American culture - the people, their craft, their traditions, and their legendary warrior societies.
"I want viewers to experience the people truly native to this country in all their grandeur".
A master of old style techniques, OJ is a stickler for historical accuracy and authenticity of materials (that are non toxic and, of course, legal). He is very particular about the look of his pieces - he hand paints and forms all of the feathers used in his work. He also likes to think of it as sculpting rather than constructing - he is always considering the movement of his pieces when worn and thinking of ways to put a little life in them.
"I usually finish my headdress with bells or something that adds a musical element to give them some sound…a voice".
His portfolio ranges from exquisite quillwork to beautiful buckskin clothing, but he is most celebrated for (and proud of) his elaborate feather headdresses.…[smiling, he says] even after nearly 22 years in the studio, he still feels a special affinity for each piece and makes each one as if it was for him to keep. He also proudly states that no two he's made have ever been the same.
His headdresses are not only visually impressive; they also remember the powerful symbolism they once represented in tribal culture as the insignia of military society officers.
Eagle Feather Warbonnets
OJ explains that the eagle is a raptor, and therefore a war bird. The eagle's feathers were believed to be imbued with power from the sun (which was thought by some to be the Great Spirit's dwelling place) and were believed to be endowed with the ability to protect them from harm in battle.
When these feathers were used in a head piece, they were attached in such a way that they would seem to radiate around the wearer's head as if they were shafts of light coming to him from above; when the trailers were added, the energy of the eagle was also felt throughout the body.
These feather warbonnets (or headdresses) were reserved for the military elite such as chiefs and high ranking tribal military officers. Many times, each feather represented the individual achievements of a single warrior on the battlefield, but some (in the case of a double trailer headdress for example) the feathers may also symbolize the combined war honors (also called coups) of the tribe.
"The double trailer headdress, often called a Chief's Headdress, is by far the most impressive of all the headdresses worn by any other culture - Egyptian, Mayan, Roman, Greek, or any other - thought history".
Dog Soldier Society Headdress
Dog Soldier headdresses are known for their full dome of rich black feathers with white tips and tail of turkey feathers along the back. Not much is known about this more mysterious type of headdress or the men that wore them as there are fewer accounts of this legendary society of fierce warriors.
…but they were believed to have been intensely brave and spiritual and would often serve as a first line of defense in a battle - the greatest among them were said to be able to kill simply by looking at their opponents.
OJ says documentation of the original headdresses by Karl Bodmer or even George Catlin visually suggests they may have included over 1000 black Magpie or Raven feathers. Today, these birds are now protected, so the headpieces are made with imitation magpie feathers (which are much wider than those once used), so most usually consist of 300 - 350 feathers to achieve the rounded, full effect.
But, he says, the feathers used for the wild turkey crest (today) are the same as those in the original headdresses (since they are legal to use). He has also made a few adjustments based on his own aesthetic - OJ explains that some Dog Soldiers will use white fur to tip the feathers, but he prefers hackles because they are much lighter and gives the headpiece more movement.
Reserved only for the most elite, those who held the highest position in the eyes of the warrior society were given the right to wear a horned headdress by the village leaders.
OJ explains the horns of any animal held special powers for the Plains Indians and it was believed that a man who wore horns could use powers not available to a normal man - he had the power to look upon the enemy and invoke death and was believed to have a special relationship with the spirit world and the Great Spirit.
"People used animal totems as a way of imitating certain animals and taking on (or emulating) their persona. The horns didn't have power by themselves, it was more about the energy and special traits of the animal they came from".