Where People Meet

Whistler's aboriginal museum breaks stereotypes, shares living culture

by Lisa RIchardson

Last summer, a totem pole carved by Squamish Nation carver Rick Harry (Xwalacktan) out of a tree felled on Blackcomb Mountain was erected on the top of Whistler to extend a cross-cultural welcome to visitors from around the world.

At the pole's Awakening Ceremony, Lil'wat Nation member Franklin Andrew said, "People who see this figure will understand they walk in our lands."

Whistler, as a municipality, has only existed since 1975, and as a small settlement since 1914, but Squamish Nation and Lil'wat Nation history goes back thousands of years.

For the First Nations living on either side of Whistler, one of the key legacies sought from hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics was the chance to be seen. Having their enduring presence in these lands manifestly acknowledged was an important first step in building community capacity, cultural pride, political power and economic opportunities.

As David Baker, an ambassador at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre explains, "A lot of people don't know Whistler as a native territory. They just know it as a resort town. That was one of the legacies we wanted out of the Olympics. For people to know we're here. We're still alive. We're not a Hollywood stereotype."

Outside the centre, all through the winter, master carver Ray Natraoro worked on a new totem pole intended to be installed in Whistler Village. "It's another thing to show our presence," says Baker.

Natraoro's newest carving, as well as the Whistler Mountain totem pole, plays a similar role as the interpretive signs that mark The Cultural Journey along the Sea to Sky Highway. They're way-finders, pointing the way to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, the heart of the physical presence of aboriginal culture in Whistler.

Celebrating its third year in operation, the centre, although it's called "Aboriginal Museum" so visitors can understand the nature of the attraction, is nothing like the dusty moth-ball-ripe, junk-filled repositories that the word sometimes conjures. Airy and cedar-infused, the space has become an embassy and an alternative learning centre - a physical place for the person-to-person transmission of Squamish Nation and Lil'wat Nation culture.

Baker is a 37-year-old Squamish Nation member who has worked at the centre since its opening. He's watched almost 30 youth from Squamish and Mount Currie be trained as cultural ambassadors, gaining tourism education, work experience and skills in traditional cultural activities. And he's lost count of the number of international visitors he has guided through the facility.

"I like breaking the stereotypes. We don't do pow-wows, we don't say ‘How!' I can be a little irreverent. I like to interject a little humour into my tour to make sure people know we're human."

Baker continues, "Our language is only 40 years old in written form. It was invented by linguists from universities who listened to the elders and broke the language down."

An entirely oral culture depends on this person-to-person connection. There were no books, diaries, blogs, or technical manuals to store the knowledge. It was all held in the people, which is one reason why removing children to residential schools was so damaging to the community fabric.

Canoe carving, a particular expertise of the Squamish Nation as one of the sea-going nations of the Coast Salish, was almost a lost art. Natraoro, the grandson of master canoe carvers, spent years researching historical records and seeking advice from elders to revive the Squamish tradition. Displayed at the centre is one of Natraoro's canoes, one of the Squamish Nation's seven different types of vessels. He carved the 40-foot-long, summer-harbour, saltwater hunting canoe from a single cedar tree.

The hunting canoe features deep side walls and a mast to take advantage of the big gusts of wind that give Squamish its name. Natraoro hauls it out of the exhibition down to the ocean every summer, prompting Baker to joke that the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre is doubling as "the most expensive boat storage in the world."

Without textbooks or diagrams, an oral culture shares technology by apprenticeship. Working alongside a master. A direct transmission of knowledge, person to person.

It's a slow-paced way to accumulate expertise, and it is vulnerable, but that sense of steadying slowness infuses the centre from the moment one pushes open the huge carved entry doors and steps inside.

The foyer is wide and uncluttered, and staff nod acknowledgement at your entry, but let you acclimatize, adjust, read the first few signs that orient you to the fact, as you make your approach to the welcome counter, that you are now in a place that honours story.

The Squamish and Lil'wat Nations welcome
you to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural

Photo: Greg Eymundson,