'It's time for the Coast Salish to shine' 

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Last Friday was an auspicious day for the Squamish Nation, as two significant blessing ceremonies were held at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.

The newly completed longhouse, which is situated behind the Cultural Centre, is a replica of a traditional Squamish dwelling, with a single-slope roof, and constructed from cedar posts and planks by New Haven and Fraser construction. But before the building could be opened to members of the public, it had to undergo an important blessing ceremony.

Among those gathered together for this special day were many esteemed members of the Squamish First Nation, including a host of respected elders and Chief Janice George. Many wore cedar-woven traditional hats and wool garments and, armed with traditional medicines, candles, water and spruce boughs, they made their way around the perimeter of the room, awakening the spirit with their drumming and sacred cedar song.

"When they do this kind of a ceremony, it calls the ancestors to be there and support us," she explained over the sound of drumming. "And it also protects the people that are in there.

"...Right now is such a profound time for Squamish people, the things that are coming back to our people and the strong cultural pull that people are having, especially youth," she said, pointing out that two ambassadors at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre have been nominated for National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.

The building will eventually be used as an artist demonstration area, where traditional First Nations artists will be able to work in a public space.

"The big thing about Coast Salish art is that it's so underrepresented in this area," said Chief George. "... I think it's time now - the Olympics are here - its time for the Coast Salish to shine, now. It's to focus on what we can do, and we are ready to share."

Born and raised in Squamish, Chief George now calls the Capilano reserve home. There, she and her husband, Buddy Joseph, have established a home studio, the L'hen Awtxw weaving house, where they teach the traditional craft of weaving to younger generations.

"The way it all started is I've always wanted to be a weaver, and I'd always seen these old photographs in my life and books. I was always fascinated with it, and I always wanted to learn."

It wasn't until almost five years ago that the fates aligned, and Chief George met the woman who taught her traditional weaving techniques. That isn't to say that weaving was uncharted territory for Chief George. Quite the contrary, in fact. She actually completed the textile arts program at Capilano College, where she studied tapestry weaving, and attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where she studied three-dimensional arts and museum studies, graduating with honours, before she returned to British Columbia.

"We always dreamed... we would have a cultural centre or a museum, so it was a huge dream that I had for decades, and that's the reason why decades before they began building this building, I had gone to school for museum studies," she said.

Now, she is seeing her dream come to fruition.

"Our elders and our ancestors have gone through such a hard life and the things they did are affecting us now," Chief George said. "The things that they did allow us to do what we do today, so we are so grateful to them, and I just want to thank them."

Today, Chief George and her husband are curators for the SLCC's impressive collection of weavings. They've worked with 10 apprenticing weavers who created pieces for the stunning exhibit, which is sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada.

"I am living my dream," Chief George said with a wide smile, tears welling up slightly behind her funky eyeglass frames. "And I say that every time I get to do something like (curate) the Capilano exhibit."

You see, Thursday, March 19 marked a particularly special day for Chief George and many other members of the Squamish Nation, as they witnessed the return of a significant piece of their history: Chief Joe Capilano's blanket.

During an internship at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Chief George realized the prized blanket was in their possession.

"It's never been home again - never," she said.

It was more than 100 years ago that Chief Joe Capilano set sail on his ambitious journey to England to speak with the King about land claims.

Chief George described Thursday's ceremony at the SLCC as a "very emotional experience" with Chief Capilano's grandchildren in attendance to witness the return of this significant piece of history.

"Being a part of bringing this blanket back is almost overwhelming," she said. "The feeling of having the blanket here is like bringing an ancestor home."

The blanket is on display at the SLCC for six months, before it is moved to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria in October.


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