Cultural Journey Leads to the Iconic Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre
The Sea to Sky Highway, one of the world’s iconic drives, winds from Vancouver to Whistler following the curves of bays, rising and falling with the Coastal Range landscape. But it is far more than a beautiful drive. It also provides an insight into the rich traditions of the Squamish First Nation.
Signage in both English and Squamish marks the 70-mile route, some carved attractively on the sides of large boulders. At seven notable viewpoints, information kiosks in a distinctive native cedar-hat shape present information about the sites and their traditional meaning to the Squamish peoples. I learn about mythological creatures, the meaning of mountain peaks, animals and the botany of the area. Every kilometre of the route is rich with First Nations’ history, supernatural beings and native place names.
I reach Whistler with the snow-capped peaks of Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains towering high above the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre. This imposing building has became a landmark since it opened in 2008. A large foyer with sweeping windows echoes a Squamish long house. Attached is a circular Lil’wat pit house, its domed roof covered in native plants. The Cultural Centre was built for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which were the best in history for accepting aboriginal peoples and involving them in a meaningful way.
Chief Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief and cultural ambassador for the Squamish Nation, greets me. A part of the team who developed the Cultural Journey, he explains, “When we met with Olympic officials before the Games, we were astonished that they didn’t know the origin of local place names. Names are important. Every place in the Squamish and Lil’wat territory has a name and a story, all is recorded in our oral history. We proposed that signage indicating native names be placed along the Sea to Sky corridor.” That idea grew into the Cultural Journey, which is unique in the world.
A tour guide explains the difference between the cultures of the two nations. The Lil’wat, more a forest people, traditionally wore leather buckskin clothing, while the Squamish, more a coastal people, built sea-going canoes and wore clothes woven of wool and cedar. The importance of weaving is illustrated at several displays. The Squamish bred dogs for their hair, and they gathered wool from wild mountain goats.
Chief Campbell, donned his traditional regalia and showed me around the Centre. We meandered past colourful masks, traditional weavings and then stopped at a large dugout canoe, made from a single old-growth tree. “I love canoeing and I participate in many traditional voyages,” he says. “The main purpose of this centre is not tourism,” he continues …
“The Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre is a place to preserve and revitalize our traditions, to celebrate our rich and vibrant culture and to share it with the world.”
The Aboriginal Youth Ambassador program is a cornerstone of the Centre. Young people train with elders and native cultural experts learning about carving, regalia making, story telling and traditional plants. I was impressed by the friendliness of the staff and how comfortably and knowledgeably they answered questions.
Lunching at Thunderbird Café, I choose from traditional foods such as salmon chowder, venison chilli and bannock impregnated with salmon berries.
After, I stroll behind the main building along a forest walking loop, stopping at display boards describing various facets of the alpine forest and showing the connection between native people and nature.
With the car weaving back and forth along the Cultural Journey, I drive back to Vancouver. I feel closer to the land and the Aboriginal people it is connected to.