The spectacular architecture that makes up the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre springs undeniably from the two First Nations heritages housed within.
The long rectangular two-storey main building which envelopes the SLCC's art and artifacts collections, its 80-seat theatre, art-filled shop and restaurant is Squamish Nation. It evokes the Tl'aktaxen Lam or longhouse of that Coast Salish community, whose traditional territories stretch from the Whistler area south, to Kitsilano in Vancouver.
On either side of the rectangle, making the complex look a bit like a percentage sign from the air, are two round S7istken or pit houses of the Interior Salish Lil'wat Nation, whose traditional territories stretch from Whistler northward to Lillooet. One S7istken covers an open space next to the restaurant, which is used for ceremonies and even weddings; the other is more traditional and is a space for workshops and storytelling.
Perched on the corner of Lorimer Road and Blackcomb Way in the Upper Village, the SLCC is a cedar, steel and glass beauty that fits within the west coast modern architecture tradition. Yet it blends in very different ancient ideas of what a home was to both the Squamish and Lil'wat people.
There is carbon-dated evidence that the nations lived together for hundreds of years at the village of Spo7ez, located where Rubble Creek flows from the base of Mount Garibaldi, 16 kilometres south of Whistler. The cultural centre echoes this provenance.
The ceremony that marked the birth of the SLCC in 2008 was full of pomp and confetti, with hundreds of guests and dignitaries, including federal culture minister James Moore and then-premier Gordon Campbell, singing, drumming and dancing to traditional songs with chiefs and elders.
The 2010 Winter Olympics and the many agreements between three levels of governments made it possible; five counting the chiefs and councils of both nations. That it could be more than a museum was the hope and aim the day it opened, and what has carried this through has been a coming together of many types of people for the sake of a building that is now a hub of a kind of heritage compact.
And as the centre enters its fifth year, kinship, family, and hospitality are no less important now than they were when it opened, than it would have been at the time of Spo7ez.
Those who run the centre will show off this legacy and hospitality at The Spirit Within Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29, an event that will take the SLCC to the heart of Whistler Village.
The 12-hour festival is a combination of food, singing, dancing and art and is meant to show off what the communities can do, where they are headed, and what this means to Whistler and the rest of the Sea to Sky Corridor.
Executive director Casey Vanden Heuvel calls it a chance for the SLCC to take their cultures to the Village.
"We wanted for the first time to produce our own large-scale event, hosted by and at the facility," he says.
Another point is to raise the SLCC's profile and have more people learn its cultural message — and to create new funding opportunities.
"The festival is one of those core new things that we're developing," Vanden Heuvel says. "We want to put this on and we want it to be the best, because it's going to represent the cultures we represent here (at the centre) every day. It's a big new step for us."
Whistler's mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, says the municipality has partnered with the centre and supported it by providing tax exemptions for the last four years, and also contributed $40,000 the First Nations Cultural Journey Project. They are also kicking in $34,000 for the Spirit Within Festival.
"(The SLCC) is certainly a place for visitors who want to experience culture to come to Whistler," Wilhelm-Morden.
The SLCC has brought First Nations into Whistler's mainstream tourism for the first time. Nowhere has the success of having the Squamish and Lil'wat people see and be seen been more significant than in the SLCC's Aboriginal Youth Ambassador (AYA) program.
Young ambassadors of their nations
The first AYAs were trained in 2000, and the program has expanded year-on-year to become one of the cornerstones of the SLCC since 2008.
A perfect two-way conduit, the program trains those between 16 and 35 to guide guests as they experience the museum and watch the multimedia displays, answer questions, and act as the living embodiments of a Sea to Sky indigenous spirit that many visitors to Whistler will have never encountered.
And there is a flipside. The training heightens personal and cultural pride and confidence in the AYAs themselves, and brings them into contact with Whistler's international set, as well as other Canadians. When it comes to access, imparting knowledge and communication, it is a win-win.
Ambassadors also get three tourism course credits through Capilano University, and take part in training that is particular to their roles in First Host, World Host and Kitchen programs.
The most recent AYA course started early July and finished in August. Some 400 young people from the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations have taken it over the last 12 years and many of the alumni will be at a reunion in Whistler on Sept. 29, which coincides with the festival.
Needless to say, the AYA program is popular. The SLCC's manager of program development, Sarah Goodwin, said there are always more applicants than spaces, with some coming from other First Nations communities. Other aboriginal communities around Canada have sought to set up their own similar youth ambassador programs based on Whistler's successes.
All ambassadors have the chance to try different aspects of running the SLCC, and individuals will gravitate towards what they excel at, whether it be in the kitchens, leading the tours, or the singing and dancing.
One ambassador is Swo-wo Gabriel, 17, who lives on the Waiwaikum reserve of the Squamish Nation near Brackendale. He said he always felt close to his traditional culture thanks to his mother, who is involved in the Squamish Big House, but coming to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre furthered his journey into that knowledge, he believes.
"It doesn't seem like a job. I love my culture, I get to sing a lot. I've noticed that I've improved — I thought I already knew a lot, but it's just been bumped up," Gabriel says.
Gabriel said the youth ambassadors often trade information with each other about the slices of culture each learned from their two communities and elders. The AYA program gave Gabriel a sense of the teamwork necessary to build this kind of cultural village.
"You can't do too much alone. I've gotten a lot better... I'm a lot nicer than I used to be," he says with a smile.
"I notice I go out of my way now to do simple stuff, like hold doors open... after learning all the programs, World Host and all that, it makes a big difference the little things you do."
Gabriel says he'd like to continue working at the centre or in setting up cultural exchanges on behalf the Squamish Nation, as he has previously taken part in talks and performances for the Stó:lo First Nation in the Fraser Valley and also for Maori visitors.
An up-and-coming young actor, who has appeared in the final two Twilight Saga films (he played Brady Fuller in Breaking Dawn) and in the TV series Blackstone, Gabriel would also like to establish a football career. At 17 he wants to keep his options open and try out a few possibilities.
"I'd like to work here for a while, and after that become a cultural interpreter; it would be cool to work in my culture for my career," he said.
Rilla Andrew, 28, moved away from the Mount Currie reserve a decade ago. She returned from her home on Vancouver Island earlier this year with her family, in part to reconnect with her Lil'wat heritage and family and to join the AYA program. She has been singing and dancing traditional performances since childhood.
"Last winter it was time to come home because I had been away from my culture for so long. A lot of the dances they do now in Mount Currie (in a dance group), I actually taught them. Some of the songs and dances I was taught by my grandmother as I was growing up," Andrew said.
With four youngsters aged seven, five, three and one at home, joining the AYA program has meant a deep commitment for Andrew. She couldn't do it, she said, without her husband's support.
"I get ready at seven in the morning and don't get home until seven at night," she said. "Right now their dad is at home with them and he loves it."
When Andrew is asked about the gains she's made in the program, the passion in her voice is palpable.
"When I first started, it was more like a training program, I wanted to do the World Host, First Host, Food Safe, but now I want to work here... many people don't know we are here, that we still practice our languages and songs and dances."
Andrew wants to take an indigenous business program and had considered moving into accounting after completing her time as an aboriginal youth ambassador.
"But now I'm leaning more towards tourism," she says, gesturing to the centre around her. "I would love to have a hand at actually running the place because it is non-profit."
Meeting the World, challenges and triumphs
When it comes to visitors, Andrew and Gabriel met many who are eager to learn more, those who are uncertain, others who know very little — and sometimes those who know too much of the wrong thing, people imbued with negative stereotypes.
They and the other ambassadors take it all in their stride.
"People definitely have a lot of questions," says Andrew. "Whether we still live in our istkens or longhouses, can we speak our languages, how many people on each reserve, do we still have reserves, who do the reserves belong to, who do we answer to..."
"I get those questions for sure," Gabriel says. "And are we alcoholics, do we have tons of kids. The stuff that gets put in their heads is what some people come here thinking."
Even visitors with the best intentions and sincere interest sometimes have trouble getting beyond the Hollywood stereotypes, some thinking that Pacific Northwest aboriginal peoples will live in teepees, which are traditionally found on the North American plains, Andrew says.
"And some people believe that we just don't exist anymore," she adds in a quiet voice. "We have the chance to educate them and change their minds."
"Up to a point, you get kind of offended. But it's not their fault they don't know anything. You've got to look at it from their perspective," says Gabriel. "
One woman asked him if he "still went on spiritual journeys to the mountains" in a slightly condescending way.
"I didn't know what to say, because we still do," says Gabriel, making the room explode with laughter.
"The way she asked us was, like, 'Are you still fanatics?' So I told her, yeah, we do that, but it's not like you may think. We go up there for four days to keep in touch with the roots and the earth. It's not about seeing visions. It's about us being with the wilderness, because we never get to do that enough."
Andrew says that historically, the land around Whistler was occupied by the wolf clans of each nation. It is a morsel of knowledge you might never see on a museum information board, but coming from the mouth of a descendent it means more.
Some liked the program so much they haven't left.
Josh Anderson, 30, went through the AYA program in 2008. Because of it he moved from working for a bank in Pemberton to being in charge of guest services at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. His friendly smile ends up on a lot of SLCC posters and he admits he's been called "the face of the franchise."
"A lot of people at home say they are proud to see me in the paper," Anderson says.
"The centre is a big part of us now. It's not just representing us; it is representing our culture as well, that we still celebrate it. It's thriving; we're here, living and breathing people. We're not just figurines. I get told I am representing them to the entire world."
Theodora Sam, 37, with her background as a baker in a restaurant in Pemberton, is now part of the kitchen team and likes working with the Aboriginal Youth Ambassadors, teaching them the traditional and fusion dishes that are served to guests.
"When I was little I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and picked up so much from them. We did a lot of fishing, and canning and drying, berry picking and gardens," she says. This, she says, is what she tries to teach the AYAs.
Sarah Goodwin would like to see the AYA program expand, but due to funding challenges does not foresee the next group of eight ambassadors coming through the centre's cedar doors before Spring 2013.
It's an expensive program, with each eight-week intake consisting of eight students costing $150,000, but students are paid a salary as they learn and work which accounts for some of this amount. And value is also given in how it changes lives.
"Some work here, many have returned to school, one young woman is studying medicine, others go on to get degrees in tourism," Goodwin says. "Others have launched their own businesses. One got a business loan and is now delivering cultural workshops on her own."
Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation worked on the SLCC from concept stage onwards, and was one of the first co-curators when the centre opened.
"Early on we recognized that this was a dream of our people, to have a venue to showcase the culture, and certainly the Olympics created that catalyst to allow that discussion to come to fruition," he said.
"We said to ourselves 'We need to make a connection to our membership, especially to our youth — to have them come out on the land and have experiential learning.'"
This guardian project evolved into the current AYA program from there.
Two years ago, Casey Vanden Heuvel became the executive director of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre after seeing Tourism Whistler and the media centre through the 2010 Winter Games. He has heard all the rumours when it comes to the SLCC — that the building will be turned into a casino, and that it is a white elephant that drinks up taxpayers' money.
To answer the former, he points out that in a practical sense there is no provision for a casino venture in the Resort Municipality of Whistler. The SLCC is on RMOW land, not reserve land, and is subject to its bylaws. As a more cerebral answer he says that for the board of the SLCC the centre has more value as a cultural tool than it would as an income generator with poker tables and one-armed bandits.
As for the issue of federal or provincial funds bailing out the cultural centre, he points out that, actually, the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations themselves cover any financial shortfall.
"We will get federal or other government funding for our programming or for the collection — it would never be enough to pay the bills... Net operating losses are covered by the nations," Vanden Heuvel says.
In the last few years, the SLCC has been diversifying its products and services with the aim of bringing in extra income; special events like weddings and receptions are now a regular specialty, as are corporate events. There are also out-of-house cultural education programs for business.
This has meant that while the SLCC operates at a loss every year (Vanden Heuvel says that the last fiscal year 2011/2012 was the first year it lost under $1 million), the amount of that loss has been getting lower every year. Vanden Heuvel feels very strongly about turning a profit at the SLCC that can go back to the Squamish and Lil'wat people.
"I want to be able to reverse this completely and send money to them," he says. "They need to be spending it on their own programs and services."
The SLCC and Whistler
Outside the Squamish Lil-wat Cultural Centre itself, the wider community has, of course, followed its development. Louise Walker Vice President, Marketing and Strategic Planning at Tourism Whistler says that the SLCC, being a "weather independent activity" which is still a rarity at the resort, is important for Whistler's own diversity and growth.
"It was something we were a little weak on a few years ago," she says.
"From our side, it provides an exceptional experience that is unique to Whistler and showcases our two native cultures, the first of its kind in Canada. It really helps from that perspective to expand the whole experience beyond what we're really known for."
As mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden agrees that the SLCC can be part of an approach that can widen the resort's appeal.
"Reports back to me are that international visitors love to experience the centre, and the First Nations art and history that is there. I think that what you hear from the Young Ambassadors is true, that a lot of international guests are not very well informed about the culture, so this is a wonderful asset to have in Whistler for our guests," she says.
Walker said that during summer 2011, the most recent period for complete statistics, visitor numbers bore this out with 37 per cent of visitors participated in some kind of arts and culture activity, an increase from 28 per cent in summer 2010.
Of that 37 per cent, 11 per cent of that number visited a museum or cultural centre at the resort, including the SLCC.
Significantly more destination visitors from overseas visit the SLCC during the summer months compared with regional visitors.
For the winter season of 2011/12, around half of Whistler's visitors had an arts and culture experience, Walker said. Of that half, six per cent visited a museum or cultural centre.
And time and again the Aboriginal Youth Ambassadors are cited as being what makes a visit the to SLCC worthwhile, because their reality makes the words flesh.
Chief Lucinda Phillips of Mount Currie took part in the AYA program when she was the Lil'wat's lands manager. She fell in love with what the program did for the youth of the community, and with the centre itself.
"They had put together a similar program that was shared with probably 75 per cent of the staff within our band office organization. Staff went through one week of training — they did the customer service, the certificate work. It was quite the eye opener," Phillips said.
"It was the greatest feeling just being in the centre, and being able to share, and to witness all the tourists coming in. The self-esteem just in the week I was there was built up in one's self. You really feel like you're at home."
Spirit Within Festival a first for Whistler
The Spirit Within Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29 takes the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre to the heart of Whistler Village.
The 12-hour festival is a combination of food, singing, dancing and art and is meant to show off the heritages of the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, communities whose traditional homelands overlapped the territory near Whistler.
The festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the centre itself and throughout the village.
11 am to Noon
Welcome Figure blessing at Village Common, near Village 8 Movie Theatre
Traditional blessing for Aaron Nelson-Moody's and Delmar Williams's welcome figure, which was carved over the summer in front of the SLCC.
Noon to 4 pm
First Nation's Village at Village Square
Visit a variety of First Nation's artists and performers as they create a fun and interactive village with demonstrations, crafts, games and performances within the village.
10 am to 5 pm
Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre performances, Upper Village
In the Great Hall, surrounded by huge dugout canoes and carvings, there will be storytellers, children's crafts and games. Access to the SLCC will include the regular guest experience and tours of the centre and its exhibits. Admission by donation.
11 am to 4 pm
First Nations artist market, Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, Upper Village
First Nations artists showcase their handmade artwork, jewellery and more in the SLCC's Istken Hall
Noon to 3 pm
Salmon BBQ at Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, Upper VillageEnjoy a Salmon Burger, Venison Burger or a Bison Sausage with a beverage for $14.
5 pm to 11 pm
Spirit Within Evening
First annual First Nations Evening includes:
• First Nations cuisine – Supper will be served in sample stations throughout the centre, with bannock burgers, chili, and more;
• 90-minute Salish performance showcasing four types of Salish dancing and hoop dancing; and
• Urban Lounge showcases up-and-coming youth artists, including DJs, hip hop, acoustic and fashion artists.
Tickets for the evening event, includes dinner, cost $45 adults and $25 for children under 12. Tickets can be purchased here: shop.slcc.ca/festival-tickets
Lil'wat7úl Nation STORY
Eesh-a and the eagles
In the Pemberton Valley lived an old woman named Eesh-a, who was the grandmother of Nicholas Joe. Eesh-a was crippled in her legs and couldn't use them. To get around, Eesh-a could only crawl.
But the people were going up to Miller Creek, far up the Pemberton Valley, to gather food for the winter and Eesh-a planned to go with them.
"You people carry on. I will get there," she told them.
When this story happened, my father was a young boy. His half-brother Kwa-cha and the son of Eesh-a, was among the people that went to Miller Creek. Eesh-a went with them. When they came to the mountain, the other people went ahead and made camp.
And not long behind them, after they made camp, Eesh-a crawled in.
On the south side of the mountain, there are a lot of pine trees that have pine nuts or acorns. There were dozens of seeds in one acorn. My father use to go out with Eesh-a to gather the nuts while the men were hunting. He hiked alongside of her, while she crawled up to this place.
All day they gathered acorns from the tree limbs that my father cut down. When both their baskets were filled, Eesh-a would tell my father return on his own. My father would go ahead, but not long after he arrived at the camp, Eesh-a would crawl in. They returned before the hunters.
They were at this place for a few weeks, during the fall. The hunters shot all the game that they could. They stayed until they had enough meat for the winter. While they were there, they dried groundhog and other smaller animals, as well as the large ones, such as bear, goat and deer.
When they were ready to go home, the old lady said: "You people pack up and go. I'll get to the camp in a short time." The people headed as far down the mountain as they could on the first day. Sure enough, soon after they arrived at the camp, the old lady came with her pack.
This is all because Eesh-a had eagle for her power. As soon as the other people were out of sight, two eagles would come and each would take hold of a shoulder. They would take her wherever she wanted to go, either up the mountain or down the mountain. Whenever they arrived near the people, the eagles would let go of her. This is how she was able to travel so well and so quickly.
– Told By Charlie Mack, shared by Lil'wat elders through the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre
Skwxwú7mesh Nation story
The Two-headed Serpent
In the valley, along the Squamish River, a large two-headed serpent called Sinulhkay, wreaked havoc on the Squamish Nation. The mythological hero Xwechtáal was told by this father, the chief, to slay the serpent. Xwechtáal hesitated, being recently married, but he eventually did what was asked of him.
After a lengthy meditation, Xwechtáal had a vision on how the serpent could be killed.
Xwechtáal followed the serpent to a rock face up the Stawamus Chief Mountain. The serpent's path went straight up the face of the cliff, leaving a black line of destruction. He followed Sinulhkay to a lake in the mountains. He saw that one of the serpent's two heads was awake during daylight while the other would sleep. At night they would switch.
Grabbing two spears, he attacked the daytime head, and as that head began to die and fall, the other woke from its slumber. It was angry and distressed. Xwechtáal quickly paddled across to the second head, and the serpent dove under water towards tunnel deep in the lake. Xwechtáal threw his spear and it stuck in the serpent's head before he got away.
After Sinulhkay died, he took one of its bones, which gave him healing powers and he used it to help his people. Xwechtáal continued on his journey. Because of his magical powers, each village he came across welcomed him. A leader of one village gave Xwechtáal his daughter as a wife.
As Xwechtáal travelled through the Squamish territory, he impressed each village with his powers. In appreciation, each leader gave Xwechtáal a wife until he finally returned home, years after he first left.
From the head of the Squamish River, to the mouth of the Squamish, all the Squamish people are now united because of Xwechtáal. Telling his people of his journey to kill the serpent, the people gave him the name 'Xwupúkinem, meaning "Two-Headed Serpent Slayer Warrior."
- Source: Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre
Rick Harry and artists
Xwalacktun or Rick Harry is a celebrated Squamish Nation carver who was awarded the Order of British Columbia in September 2012. His work can be seen at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and throughout the region.
Here he describes what the centre means to First Nations artists from both communities:
"The centre is just an awesome place for people to come visit and to learn who we are as artists, as Coast Salish artists, plus Lil'wat artists (Interior Salish), because we have different styles. When we share we have a good time, laugh and joke and also learn from each other.
"What I do is mostly work with other artists, young artists, and be a mentor to them, to teach them some styles, how to approach work, and so forth.
"I did some carving demos (at the SLCC), it was not only a teaching job; it was also a commission job. So the piece is still there at the centre. I had staff come in and take turns at taking wood away. Another project, I had all sorts of people, even visitors from abroad, come and take wood away, which ended up on top of Peak 2 Peak (gondola).
"The significance of taking wood away is to experience taking it away, sharing it, how it feels, become familiar with everything about it.
"The last time I worked there was two summers ago, but I've been going up there every now and then when there are ceremonies, or other artists doing work — seeing what they are up to, to partake in the market every once in a while.
"When I was working there, from the local community (Senior Vice President, Marketing and Sales at Whistler Blackcomb) Stuart Rempel's wife and son put their hands on the cedar I was working on and I carved a frog, to represent the Lil'wat people, and the hands represented the people in Whistler. I carved their hands on the frog so they could share their experience.
"It's just an awesome place to go. If lived closer I'd probably be there every day and taking part and just enjoy working with all the people from the staff, and getting to know the community better. I like that idea of working with the community and sharing with them and bringing us together."
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