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Art as communicator, art as healer

Alice Guss shares Squamish Nation culture from Whistler, to Hawaii and to Chicago

Alice Guss describes a large 22-inch traditional hand drum she is making.

"I had to cut the skin using the template and the punch holes in it, about an hour, and then soak it for at least a half hour. Then comes the lacing. It takes about two hours to lace," she explains from her home on the Squamish Nation reserve of Stawamus, south of Squamish.

Another skin, moose hide, has been soaking in a nearby creek for two months. It is important for Guss to do the preparations for her art traditionally, something that is also core to her work as a storyteller and weaver.

After all this work comes a design. Guss explains the inspiration.

"You use whatever your animal spirit or your clan or whatever comes to you. That is what we make. Some have eagles, ravens," she says, showing some animal designs. "I got my brother (renowned Squamish carver Rick Harry) to do these."

But there's flexibility.

"I made one in Tsawwassen (south of Vancouver), and this little Kindergarten kid, he went and painted Batman on his!" she says, with a laugh.

Guss was the director of education for the Tsawwassen First Nation until 2004, and also worked as an employment coordinator in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. She took the plunge full time into art in 2009.

In her work, Guss proudly uses her traditional name Tsawaysia Spukuwus. "Tsawaysia," is the family name inherited by her from her grandmother, and "Spukuwus," is Squamish for "bald eagle."

"I can really reach out using the teachings of our eagle feather, the talking circle, the drums and singing and storytelling," she says.

She also teaches drum making and cedar and wool weaving, mainly from her home workshop, at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, and all over the Lower Mainland.

There are sessions as elder-in-residence at the Pacific Association of First Nations Women, and workshops led at schools, clubs, and social services groups. Her most recent are wool-weaving sessions at two Burnaby high schools, repeat visits.

Guss has gone much further afield, including to conferences in Hawaii and Chicago. Admirers are currently trying to get her to England. Corporate group sessions have become part of her work.

At heart, she is a cultural ambassador for the Squamish. She believes what she has ended up doing is quite unique because of the many elements to her work.

"I had to work my way up when it comes to being this busy. Once the word gets out and I get my repeat customers, word-of-mouth, more follows," she says.

Guss's story is very much tied into the resurrection of traditional Squamish Nation art forms in the last decade or so. She ties the renaissance to specific moments that capture the nation's past.

"It was timing and the healing that we've been going through. In 1993, it was the first year Squamish Nation used a new 50-ft. seagoing canoe that we built," Guss says.

In 1994 she took her own trip in that canoe, going from Vancouver to Squamish, across Howe Sound to the Sunshine Coast and across the Salish Sea and down to Victoria.

"A lot of healing comes with it. The language, the teachings... my grandfather went to residential school, my mom, my dad went to residential school. My generation was the first who went to public school," says Guss, now 52.

"I feel absolutely optimistic. My dad taught us the language, even though he had it whipped out of him. When they got out of residential school they had a choice, whether they had the spiral effect or stand tall. And my dad stood tall. Same with my mom.

"It was a dark era and now we're standing tall. The teachings of the cedar tree, you stand tall and the roots are what will make you stronger."

Guss's next round of workshops in wool and cedar weaving and drum making take place at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre on March 15 and 16. For more information: or email