We stood in front of the cedar pole carving while the drumbeat began, strong and in time with the earth’s heartbeat. Qawam Redmond Andrews, our cultural ambassador, closed his eyes as he lifted his voice and joined his drum to begin the same song his ancestors used to call the village to come to work. Ancient and timeless, the song rose up and filled the space around us, transporting us into the story of his people.
A Place to Preserve and Revitalize Traditions
The moment we stepped into the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, in Whistler, BC, we walked into the shared story of the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh and L̓il̓wat7úl Nations, two distinct and neighbouring cultures. Intricately carved western red cedar doors opened, and we found ourselves standing under two giant hand-carved spinning whorls facing the Great Hall, where the sunlight entered through floor-to-ceiling curved glass walls to shine on living art and a space full of stories. The centre’s architecture combines the Squamish Longhouse and the circular Lil’wat Istken, with its domed roof covered with earth and native plants, a visible metaphor of these two nations’ connection.
After his welcome song, Qawam ushered us into the theatre for a short film introducing the two cultures who have been living side by side and sharing the land we have been standing on since time immemorial.
Watch the SLCC welcome video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfxHOVgyvKM
Back in the Great Hall, Qawam took us around the exhibits and shared their traditions. His father, Bruce Edmonds, was one of the great Lil’wat woodcarvers, and several of his works were displayed. The large hunting canoe representing the story of the Four Transformer Brothers was one he helped carve. Qawam explained how they used hot rocks, water, and poles to steam bend the sides of the canoe, which my husband, a woodworker himself, found fascinating. A carver like his father, Qawam, showed us one of his cedar pole carvings and explained the differences working with red and yellow cedarwood. Our family learned about traditional harvest practices that protect the trees, the land, and the rivers.
Wool was gathered from wild mountain goats where they were left on plants and rocks and they kept special dogs for their wool. The Squamish regalia is woven from wool and cedar while the Lil’wat wear leather clothing. The artists’ skill from the carvers to the weavers was visible in our tour, and two hours was not enough time to fully appreciate all the exhibits.
Both nations use oral history to pass down their stories, but many of the stories were lost when the flu and smallpox epidemics wiped out their communities. Families were fractured when the children were taken away to residential schools, and more stories were lost or changed. Yet the important ones were saved and if you pay attention and take your time, you will hear and see them in the Great Hall and the exhibits. The cultural centre exists to share and revitalize the two distinct cultures, support local artists, and inspire understanding and respect among all people.
Learning Traditional Crafts
The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre offers a variety of meaningful workshops to learn a traditional craft. We chose the medicine bag workshop. They are used to hold medicinal herbs or treasures that provide protection for the wearer. We were given some pieces of leather and beads and the kids enjoyed pulling the thin leather straps through the sides of the bigger leather piece to shut the sides of the bag. Then they picked the beads they wanted to decorate their medicine bags. Later, when we got home, we would choose what medicine or treasure to put in it. When the medicine has done its work, Qawam told us, the string will break, and then you can stop wearing it. The workshop was a favourite with our kids, so definitely don’t skip this if you go.
An Indigenous-inspired Meal
The kids were starting to feel hungry by this point, so we headed to the Thunderbird Café downstairs, a First Nations-inspired eatery, for some lunch. Qawam said he’s eaten over a hundred bannock tacos and hasn’t gotten tired of them yet; now we know why. I will order bannock tacos again when we go back. My husband enjoyed the smoked salmon panini so much that he refused to share. The food was fresh, delicious, affordable and enjoyed in the beautiful Istken Hall.
Talking Trees Tour
After lunch, we met the respected Lil’wat Elder and Plant Specialist Saopalaz (Lucille Joseph), with Talaysay Tours, based around Vancouver. She took us behind the cultural centre to the Lil’wat Istken and welcomed us by singing the Women’s Warrior Song, which was given to the Lil’wat in a dream, and which, she told us, was also given to the nations around Turtle Island. It was fascinating to know that the other nations all know a version of this song. On our walk, Saopalaz told us the stories of the trees and the medicines that were all around us. We found medicine inside the stems of the fireweed, a gel that helped with sunburn and the pearly everlasting used as women’s tobacco.
We stood at the foot of tall cedar trees and Saopalaz explained how to measure the size of the tree for responsible bark harvest, peel the bark up and where to dig for roots. She shared about devil’s club and diabetes and told us stories about how traditional medicines healed people that western medicine couldn’t help. After she taught us about the Oregon grape, one of the kids gave me one of its berries and laughed at my sour face. We learned skunk cabbage is the bear’s first food in spring, and if you see them broken and trampled on, like the ones we saw on our walk, you know a bear was recently there. The favourite tree for the kids, by far, was the “bubble tree”, and Saopalaz showed them how to pop the bubbles with their thumbnail and suck the energy-giving medicine off your thumb. Each plant in these forests have their own unique story and medicines and it felt like such an honour to receive her teachings. Talaysay Tours with Saopalaz: https://youtu.be/lTQpGHqoFQ0
The Squamish and the Lil’wat taught our family better ways to walk gently on the earth. We learned how the journey of reconciliation involves steps toward each other. The Squamish and Lil’wat people took a generous step by welcoming all of us into their centre and sharing their history and culture and we can take a step toward them by listening to their stories, learning from the people who have been taking care of this land long before us and supporting the revitalization and preservation of their cultures.
The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre has its beautiful doors open to a warm welcome all year. Talaysay Tours runs land and ocean-based Indigenous cultural and eco-tourism experiences year-round. For other Indigenous learning experiences near you, please see Indigenous Tourism British Columbia and Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
The author was hosted by Indigenous Tourism BC for this trip. They did not review this article prior to publication.