Gitxsan artist defied assimilation with art and cultural leadership

She was a woman who defied every barrier and expectation that was ever placed in front of her. Gitxsan artist and educator Judith Morgan died June 30, 2016, in Hazelton, B.C., at age 86.

Judith Morgan died at age 86: 'Her thoughts and words were powerful,' says daughter

Judith Morgan's paintings often illustrated history as well as the strength behind Gitxsan culture. This painting is called Celebration. Morgan's description of it was "a maiden is celebrating the fact that she has survived suppression." (Judith Morgan, Git Skee'een Niidiit)

She was a woman who defied every barrier and expectation that was ever placed in front of her.

When she was 19 years old, Judith Morgan showed 20 of her paintings depicting traditional Gitxsan life in the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa. (Royal B.C. Museum)

Gitxsan artist and educator Judith Morgan died June 30, 2016, in Hazelton, B.C., at age 86.

In 1949, at the age of 19, residential school survivor Morgan showed 20 of her paintings, depicting traditional Gitxsan life, at the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa.

"She was a very determined woman, and my mom was really, really smart," her daughter Carolyn Turner said from her mother and father's home in Gitwankak. B.C.

'Song taken away'

Morgan,was born in the Gitxsan village of Gitwangak, in northwest B.C., on April 27, 1930.

When she was 14, she was sent to a residential school in Port Alberni. Turner says it was there that her "song was taken away;" where she was not able to sing, speak her language, eat Gitxsan foods or talk about their traditional Gitxsan feast system.

In an article written in the Smithers Interior News in 2006, Fitzpatrick describes her experience after getting her residential school settlement payment from the federal government.

"You learn to be quiet in residential school. So that's what I lost was the song in my heart. Can you repay for it, this loss? What is it worth? We are a people with no song in our heart."

Raising voice in art

But Morgan did not stay quiet. After residential school she received a scholarship to study art in Nevada, Mo., and then attended the Kansas City Art Institute where she used a brush to express Gitxsan culture and history.

Her paintings, while pretty and elegant, are also loud and clear in their message of cultural resilience and their illustration of Indigenous and Canadian relations. Some shine a light on some of the darkest chapters of history in Canada.

"One of her paintings is called The Pyre. It is an ambiguous painting with lots of colour in it, but you can tell it's a huge bonfire," said Turner.

It's a story about Indigenous people contracting the smallpox disease through blankets brought over by Europeans.

The Pyre by Judith Morgan tells the story of Indigenous people contracting the smallpox disease through blankets brought over by Europeans. (Judith Morgan, Git Skee'een Niidiit)

"The Europeans said they had a cure if they [Indigenous people] signed a "white act." But so many refused to sign it so they wouldn't have to go through a terrible, long death. So they had a long board, and walked on it and then jumped off into a fire."

Not all of her paintings are so blunt. Another painting called Smokehouse shows how the Gitxsan dried fish from the Skeena River.

Revered teacher

Her cultural and historical prowess transcended the art world. She was also a revered teacher who ran Bible classes and taught in elementary and secondary schools in Kansas and later on in her traditional territory of Gitwangak.

Will Wiens, a non-Native teacher in a neighbouring village of Gitsegukla, says he remembers Morgan's faith in God and her teaching skills.

Judith Morgan's cultural and historical prowess transcended the art world. (Supplied by family)

"She was an excellent instructor. She motivated her students, and she had all the gifts to make the students feel good about themselves."

For 31 years, Wiens says he and his wife were close friends with Morgan, and her husband Willis Fitzpatrick. (Morgan's married name was Fitzpatrick.)

"She got her Masters degree in Prince George, and we were all very proud of her. I've never seen someone work so hard on a Masters in my life," he said.

Judith's daughter says her original Masters thesis was about traditional stories of sea monsters with a modern spin, but it was not approved by the administration.

"She was really angry about that. Reading her original thesis, I just see how smart my Mom was," said Turner.

In the summary of that thesis Morgan wrote, "In Canadian thought, Aboriginal nationhood rights and treaties are banished from history … by rescuing Indigenous peoples as objects of specific academic observation, Eurocentric anthropology effectively isolated them."

Morgan also talked about a "gapping hole of ugliness" in reference to having no record of Indigenous people in elementary and secondary schools and in academic institutions.

While that thesis was not accepted, she did go on to get her Masters degree from the University of Northern British Columbia at age 75. Her thesis includes her paintings, traditional teachings and recounts history. It is called Git Skee'een Niidiit or People of the Skeena River.

Granddaughter Nellie Eggebrecht says getting her masters was something Morgan always wanted.

"She may have seemed timid and quiet to most, but she chose her words wisely in proper measure to make herself be heard.

Eggebrecht, one of seven grandchildren, says watching her grandma paint was one of her favourite memories.

"It was such a delight to sit with her for hours and hear about life in this village we called home," she said. "I loved staying by her side as she molded and layered her life onto a blank piece of paper. She wanted people to know how proud she was of her Native history."

As a Gitxsan cultural and language teacher Morgan created all her own curricula, which will now be used by family members to teach in the community.  The Gitksan Paintbrush, her art store in Gitwangak, B.C., may be reopened by family in the near future.

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.