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Morgan Asoyuf's 'Royal Portrait': Commemorating Northwest Coast matriarchal power

By Morgan Asoyuf and Beth Carter

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2021

Morgan Asoyuf, Sii-am Hamilton, 2018. Photo: Dennis Ha, Courtesy of Or Gallery

In 2OI9, The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver, BC presented the solo exhibition “Royal Portrait” by Ts’msyen artist Morgan Asoyuf. This exhibition was a unique blend of custom jewelry, wood carving, fashion, and portrait photography. Through the creation of new regalia, including crowns and royal jewelry, Asoyuf highlights matriarchal power within the Northwest Coast as a legitimization of Indigenous sovereignty.

Morgan Asoyuf (née Green) is a contemporary artist of the Ts'msyen Eagle Clan from Ksyeen (Skeena) River, now living in Vancouver. Trained in fashion design and traditional Ts’msyen wood carving as well as European goldsmithing traditions, Asoyuf takes a multi-disciplinary approach to her artwork. She explains: “My technical specialty is soldering varied materials, such as gold with silver, inlay technique of shell and stone, gem setting, and hand engraving. I meld German hollow building techniques with my own Northwest Coast design and methodology.”

The idea of making a body of work on the theme of royalty grew out of many informal discussions with her mentor, the well-known Haida jeweler Richard Adkins. In Ts’msyen culture, a matriarch is a powerful woman and a leader for her people. “Royalty” or “high rank” is passed down matrilineally and signifies an obligation to care for your land and those in your clan. Asoyuf notes that this emphasis on responsibility for the community contrasts with the European concept of royalty, where power is measured through economic wealth. To visualize these different perspectives, Asoyuf challenged herself to develop a new type of regalia in response to current issues, and created photographic portraits that visually celebrate current roles of matriarchy.

Art as Law

Ts’msyen art, in which matriarchy is inherent, represents laws and histories from potlatch culture. Totem poles and frontlets were and are legal binding documents that state personal history, land ownership, and other legal rights.

However, colonialism introduced patriarchal values into the potlatch and Indigenous governance. Colonial systems and laws, including the Indian Act, led to residential schools, the potlatch ban, the Sixties Scoop, broken families, and many decades of intergenerational trauma. In recent years, there has been a disproportionate focus on the authority of chiefs, often for the purpose of signing land rights agreements for pipelines, dams, and resource extraction.

Asoyuf brings awareness of this history and how it affects her people through her artistic practice. Her love of traditional frontlets led her to research them and their meaning to create a body of work that both resists colonization and revitalizes her communities’ historical definition and structure of royalty.

Frontlets are masterpieces of Northwest Coast art, and the Ts’msyen produced many of the finest. A frontlet shows a family crest that is a statement of law, ownership, and status. It is part of an impressive headdress made of white ermine skins and sea lion whiskers. Worn by both women and men, the frontlet is the crowning feature of ceremonial dress that confers power, prestige, and spiritual enlightenment. When danced, for example, the loosely-packed eagle down placed inside the headdress gently floats out to symbolize spiritual cleansing.

The imagery on frontlets is also highly symbolic. The carved Wolf Frontlet (Amahalaaydm Laxgyibuu) held by Morgan is a document of the Lax Gibuu-Gibaaw (Wolf Clan), who hold the Adaawkl Nox’l Smaax (true verbal history) of the Bear Mother. Abalone shell is an iridescent material that is a window into the spirit world. Eyes, ears, and mouth set with abalone can represent the abilities to see, hear, or speak law. According to tradition, a matriarch had no voice without her K’aawts, the labret. A figure with a strained mouth on a frontlet often indicates a high-ranking matriarch with a very large labret.

Morgan Asoyuf, Whole Being Frontlet, 2019. Photo: David Laughlin

The Whole Being Frontlet is a document of the Laxsgyiik-Xgykiik (Eagle Clan). They hold the Adaawkl Nox’l Smaax (true verbal history) of the Whole Being. This frontlet combines carved wood with silver for both inlay and the faces framing the main figure. Asoyuf found it a technical challenge to combine metal and wood in a way that maintained the style of historical frontlets.

In European portraits of royalty, the monarch often wears a mantle to indicate authority. Asoyuf created three elaborate necklaces called Mantles of Responsibility. These stunning pieces underline women’s efforts to protect and preserve cherished natural and human resources. Christine E. Martin, for example, is an important community leader and land defender of Ts’msyen ancestry who works on environmental issues; she believes that “Culture is the cure for everything.”

Martin wears the Land Protection Mantle of Responsibility (Amaniidza da Laxyuub adat ‘Yets’isk) with the Bentwood Box Crown (Galts’apm Temlax’aam). Her mantle has engraved designs of eagles, Mousewoman, and a bear tooth, combined with authentic Russian blue trade beads and silver salmon vertebrae. Salmon are the lifeblood of the Ts’msyen people. Asoyuf describes:

My favourite place is my ancestral village site along the Ksyeen River, where I have spent many years salmon fishing. If you look at our traditional definition of wealth, it is the land and the people. The Ts’msyen have four major crests: Eagle, Killer Whale, Wolf and Raven. These crests represent our responsibilities to the land, ancestors and our living clan, House, hereditary chief and matriarchs. Important leaders today wear elaborate regalia which legitimizes their cultural status, such as robes, frontlets, and adornment related to their position.

Inspired by this connection to the river and salmon, Asoyuf cast salmon bones in silver. The Ts’msyen tradition is to restore the bones to the river to encourage the salmon’s return, but there are also many cultural stories about salmon and their bones. Her process for making silver salmon “bones” was exploratory and developed organically. After catching a salmon on the Ksyeen River, she collected the vertebrae and then cleaned and dried them in the sun. She experimented with how the bones could be best cast and used in different types of jewelry. The tedious process of cleaning and grinding holes in every casting allowed her to keep each vertebra’s original texture and unique shape. The entire sequence, from catching the fish until completion, took seven years.

The crown design is a collaboration with Asoyuf’s father Henry Green. It combines bear claws, which were often part of a shaman’s headdress, with a circlet composed of rectangles shaped like the panels of bentwood boxes, which are a traditional symbol of wealth and prosperity. The panels’ engraved designs represent the three realms of the Ts’msyen world: sea, land, and sky.

The painted Bear Mother Drum (Ksm Mediik) acts as a form of protection for Sii-am Hamilton, a land and water protector of Sto:lo and Nuučaanuł descent. The drum shows Bear Mother, a high-ranking matriarch, wearing a frog frontlet and a labret in her lip, with interspersed Mousewoman designs that safeguard the young.

Mousewoman and Activism

Asoyuf treasures the role of Mousewoman, a supernatural being in Northwest Coast culture who is both a tiny mouse and a wise grandmother. Featured in almost every design and crest story, she is able to slip in and out of supernatural worlds and uses this skill to guide and help youth who have gotten into trouble.

The design and precious materials of Mousewoman Oracle Crown (Ksm Wuts’iin), Ocean Protection Mantle of Responsibility (Amaniidza da lax süülda), and the dress worn by Ta’Kaiya Blaney, highlight an important issue for coastal Indigenous people: water protection. Salmon returns are a chief concern, and how fish farms, oil spills, and other pollution affect this essential resource. As a vocal Indigenous land and water defender since age 10, Blaney works to combat the existential threats of extractive industry and oil pipelines. They call out colonialism as the root of climate change and uncover the links between environmental violence and violence against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. They argue that without the return and care of the land, there can be no justice.

Asoyuf, too, believes that “Violence against the land is violence against women.” The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women describes the reasons behind the epidemic of extreme violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA3 people in Canada, both historically and today, and concludes that the systemic racial and gendered human rights violations and abuses in Canada is genocide.

Lorelei Williams models Asoyuf's MMIW2S Cape and MMIW2S Mantle of Responsibility (Amaniidza da K’waatk ada Sugyetgm Hanaa’nax, ada Ganootsm Hanaa’nax). Williams founded the dance group Butterflies in Spirit as a way to empower Indigenous women in her community and to raise awareness about her aunt Belinda Williams, missing since 1978, and her cousin Tanya Holyk, a victim of Robert Pickton in 1996. She also works as the Women’s Coordinator at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre. For her advocacy, Williams was an Everyday Political Citizen winner in 2017. The MMIW2S Cape features a form line Mousewoman and many black hands representative of the missing and murdered native women and Two-Spirit people. The matching necklace Asoyuf designed as an anatomical structure: red beads form the ribs, and the openwork silver form the backbone and the womb/Mousewoman.

Asoyuf’s experimental approach and technical ability are evident in two other beautiful pendants of Mousewoman. The Mousewoman Oracle Necklace (Gwildm ni’itsgm Ksm Wuts’iin) uses finely-worked textural differences to convey the feeling of fabric, which represents the veil separating the worlds that Mousewoman dances between. The Mousewoman Necklace (Ksm Wuts’iin) has a hammered, handmade chain with a sculptural, engraved pendant of Mousewoman. The pendant was hollow-built, a difficult forming technique that makes a hollow shape from sheet metal.

The Royal Portrait series explores contemporary interpretations of Ts’msyen power structures and draws upon the traditional process of creating law and legitimizing spiritual and political levels through artworks. Asoyuf shakes up our perception of royalty while building connections and community. Royal Portrait celebrates matriarchs for their knowledge and resilience and youth and land defenders as powerful leaders for the future.

Morgan Asoyuf is a multidisciplinary artist of the Ts'msyen Eagle Clan from Ksyeen River. She is a graduate of the Vancouver Metal Art School. Beth Carter is Curator of the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver.

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