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Keeping culture alive

From the backcountry to the classroom, meet three First Nations women who are breathing new life into deep-rooted traditions

Long before this corner of the Coast Mountains was known as Whistler—even way before it was known as Alta Lake—it was known only as the shared territory of the Lil’wat and Squamish people.

Thousands of years ago, the two distinct peoples shared a village, Spo7ez, where Rubble Creek and the Cheakamus River meet, near where Function Junction sits today. That was before the Thunderbird flapped his wings, prompting a volcano to erupt, a massive rockslide to bury the village, and a spire of volcanic rock to rise into the sky. Now called Black Tusk, rising from the mountains south of Whistler to this day, the Thunderbird’s perch served as a landmark for the two communities: when the spire comes into view, the shared territory begins.

Both the Squamish and Lil’wat cultures are rooted into this land deeper than even the tallest, oldest evergreens. In more recent history, colonialism pushed those cultures to the brink of extinction.

As the long road towards truth and reconciliation comes into focus, a new generation has accepted the responsibility of restoring what was nearly lost and carrying that culture forward.


For centuries, wool blankets like the ones Cheximiya Allison Burns Joseph weaves were worn by Coast Salish peoples as both a form of protection and a marker of status.

Her intricately-woven designs serve as a window into that long-held tradition; crafted with a passion and skill that anyone would assume she started honing early. But growing up off-reserve, in North Vancouver, Burns Joseph’s connection to her Squamish culture wasn’t always so tangible. That changed when she registered for an Indigenous Youth Ambassador training program in 2006, two years before the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) officially opened its doors in Whistler.

“We were able to have masters in different artistic abilities, whether it was paddle making, or weaving; jewelry making and a few different things that we were introduced to at the beginning,” she recalls. The wool-weaving, in particular, stuck.

Through the SLCC, she underwent a three-month apprenticeship with Chief Janice George and Buddy Joseph, husband-and-wife weavers who are heralded for helping revive the art within the Squamish Nation. Now, Burns Joseph pays that valuable knowledge forward through the workshops she hosts for youth ambassadors, school groups or the wider community.

She also manages the Indigenous Youth Ambassador program through her role at the SLCC, where she’s worked since the day the centre opened 15 years ago. The immersive program teaches Indigenous youth between 16 and 30 years old the foundations of business through the lens of a First Nations museum.

“It’s really exciting to see that come full circle,” she says.

Last December, Burns Joseph also graduated from Simon Fraser University with a certificate in Squamish Language Proficiency.

“Language, weaving and things like that were all very, very close to being non-existent when I first started to learn how to do these things,” Burns Joseph says.


“Our numbers are growing. It’s amazing to be a part of the resurgence of the important aspects to our culture.”


Lil’wat Nation’s Kelkeloakik Sandy Ward admits she was “not an outdoorsy person whatsoever” in her younger years. She had her own snowmobile, sure, but as a gym teacher noted on a Grade 9 report card, she “would do much better if she would actually participate.”

Life took a different direction when she bought her first snowboard at 15, with funds saved up from her coffee shop gig. Two years later, she joined the First Nations Snowboard Team in its first year of operation, before it evolved to become the Indigenous Sport Life Academy (ILSA). The club supported Ward in getting her instructor qualifications and she continued competing at an elite level until “a lot of knee injuries”—five surgeries, to be exact—prompted her to take a step back from the contest circuit. 

Like more than a few people who call the Sea to Sky home, one sport snowballed into others. Now, the certified bike guide splits her summer days between biking and climbing. She’s director of ILSA's youth biking and climbing programs for Lil’wat Nation, and a backcountry mentorship team co-lead for Indigenous Women Outdoors, a non-profit that aims to eliminate barriers preventing Indigenous women from getting into nature on their unceded territories. She’s also working towards becoming one of the first women to earn their mountain guide certification on a splitboard, after completing her Avalanche Operations Level 1 course last year.

Spending more time in the wilderness of her traditional territory has sparked a renewed appreciation for Lil’wat history, from place names to stories of how her ancestors safely travelled through avalanche terrain prior to the age of beacons, probes and shovels.

Ward recently completed a language course through the Tszil Learning Centre in Mount Currie.

“I didn’t really start learning about our traditional place names or stories until I got into the backcountry,” she explains. “Being out in the Duffey (north of Pemberton) and wanting to know the name of the lake, or the traditional names of the mountains and the reason that we called them that... It really sparked my interest in learning about our culture. That wouldn’t happen if I was just sitting in town.”

It’s also sparked a passion for sharing those stories with others.

“People are just so thrilled to have that better connection to the land and to understand the history a little bit better,” she says. “When I tell people these stories and I share my knowledge with them, I’m hoping that instills a little bit more respect for the territory.”


Kukw`stumc`kacw Tanina Williams always looked up to the storytellers in her community.

From an early age, it was clear she’d be following in their footsteps. Growing up in Mount Currie, as a member of Lil’wat Nation, “so many people put work, good work into me,” she recalls.

“That’s a very cultural thing—they see something in you and they’ll put time and energy into your life to give you skills.”

Where her community saw a gift worth nurturing, her teachers at the local public elementary school couldn’t. They diagnosed her with an intellectual disability.

Teachers at high school doubled down, telling Williams she “would never amount to anything,” she remembers. Williams has since worked in those same school buildings for more than a decade, as an Indigenous Support Worker and cultural educator for the Sea to Sky’s school district.

In 2020, the Knowledge Keeper also launched her own consulting business, amawílc. She hosts workshops for children’s groups, corporations and not-for-profits that inform participants about “Indigenous ways of knowing and being” to help build a mutual respect and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture. The word amawílc means “come back to life.” Williams was named a top-five finalist at Small Business BC’s 2022 Business Impact Awards for her endeavour.

She also graduated from Capilano University last year with a certificate of Lil’wat Nation Language and Culture, and, in March, completed a 900-hour mentor-apprentice language immersion program funded by the First Peoples Cultural Council. Williams' mentor? Her dad, a fluent speaker of Ucwalmícwts, Lil’wat Nation’s traditional language.

It was the only language he knew when he started attending day school, Williams explains. But, anytime he spoke Ucwalmícwts, he’d be disciplined for it.

“When he was still a young boy, elders and people in the community came together. It was hard for them to know they were sending their children to school where they were being punished for speaking their language, so they decided that they would only speak English in the home so the children could learn,” Williams explains. “My dad says it was like night and day. He said, ‘I went to sleep and I woke up, and everybody spoke English.'”

Today, Williams is working to normalize using Ucwalmícwts in schools, including by helping about 15 coworkers undergo the not-insignificant cultural process of earning a Ucwalmícwts name this year.

The more students start hearing the language and understanding the meaning behind those phrases, “it finds its way into their hearts,” says Williams.

“When the language is in your heart, and our language comes from the land, your heart is now connected to the land, and then we become better caretakers of this place.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Whistler Magazine.