Between a rock and a rock painting
Some of the most powerful moments in the lives of ancestors of Mount Currie's Lil'wat people are painted on a rock face at the North end of Green Lake, and the Resort Municipality of Whistler has included the ancient pictographs in a draft heritage inventory of historical sites in the valley.
The problem is the Lil'wat people don't think the municipality has any jurisdiction to include their cultural heritage in a plan they feel is designed to lure tourists to a valley now filled with golf courses, skiers and condos — a place where the Lil'wat people have hunted and gathered berries for thousands of years.
"Our people used to live around Whistler," says Johnny Jones of Mount Currie, who has dedicated himself to discovering and preserving the history of the Lil'wat people, some of which is contained in the sacred, red-brown figures known as pictographs that adorn the rock face. "Our territory extends south to Rubble Creek and there was a little village there where people would stay when they were hunting and picking berries."
Pubescent youths must have travelled past the north end of Green Lake as the 10 centimetre high pictographs, painted in red ochre and protected against the weather by a glue-like mixture created by chewing Salmon skin, are a testament to the travels of the Lil'wat. According to Jones, young people who wanted to be trained as medicine people went on a "vision quest" in search of power. After fasting, sometimes for four days, a "vision comes to them and they paint it on a rock."
The visions, and the rock faces they are painted on are sacred places to the Lil'wat. According to Martina Pierre, co-ordinator of the Mount Currie Cultural Centre, the Lil'wat people have to be consulted before their sacred sites are included in the municipality's heritage inventory.
Pierre has just graduated from the UBC faculty of education, where she studied native spirituality from the time contact with white people was first made. She says there has been a large gap in the lives of native people since the time of European contact and they have to try and come to grips with their own culture and history before trying to display it to the world.
"Our heritage is not completely lost because it's going to come around again when we are ready and become decolonized and more self determined," Pierre says. "We are going to regain our heritage one way or another… that will come, but we have to do it ourselves in our own time. That is the only way we will be able to know who we are."
Pierre says many non-natives glamorize aboriginal culture and think the attention should be flattering to natives, but that is not the case. In fact, natives all across Canada are trying to come to grips with what she calls "walking in two worlds." One world, that of the aboriginal ways is in the process of being re-discovered. The other, the attempt by non-natives to assimilate aboriginal people into "civilization" is in the process of being sorted out, dissected and corrected.
"We are unique and we certainly can't fit in the Indian image created by the white man," she says. "When I was going to school I learned what kind of Indian I was from a non-native and it isn't right." She says the pictographs are a large part of that re-discovery process and until native people can do their own research into how the pictographs fit into their lives it would be best for non-natives to "leave us alone."
According to Al Mackie, project officer with the provincial archaeology branch, the Lil'wat pictographs should be left alone because anyone who tries to "damage, alter, cover or move an aboriginal rock painting" can face heavy fines and jail terms under the Heritage Conservation Act. Pictographs are automatically protected under the act. So far 20,000 native pictographs have been discovered in the province.
Mackie says the exposure given to pictographs may help to protect them as the public becomes guardians. On the other hand, the exposure may bring out curiosity seekers that could damage or desecrate the sites.
"We as archaeologists are concerned about some of these sites because they are special places and the native people feel it's inappropriate to visit the sites without an elder present," Mackie says. "We have to respect the wishes of the natives and do out best to retain the integrity of the sites and not interfere with them."