From Sea to Sky: Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre

VANCOUVER – Within the beautiful landscapes full of mountains, blue lakes and seas live and thrive the peoples and nations of many diverse walks of life.

From the Haida and Tsimshian to the Kwakiutl and Squamish Nation, the indigenous people of Vancouver have adapted to the changing world around them just as the Haudenosaunee have.

And much like the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., and its initiative to preserve and teach the history and legacy of the Haudenosaunee people and the impact of the Mohawk Institute, the Squamish Lil’wat (lihl-at) Cultural Centre opened its doors to do just the same.

The centre itself is nestled in between Whistler and the Black Cove Mountains as this valley is considered shared territory between the Squamish and Lil’wat people. The two peoples have very distinct cultures and languages that are separate from one another, but instead of fighting over the valley to have one nation claim it, they decided to share the responsibility of protecting and caring for the land together.

The Squamish people are descendants of the Coast Salish First Nation, who thrived while living near the ocean. The Lil’wat people are one of 11 communities and are considered to be Interior Salish. They are also known as a mountain community as the term Lil’wat translates to the “people of the land”.

But the relationship between these two peoples is said to have begun well over 1000 years ago, as the story of Spo7ez (spo-wez) explains.

Spo7ez was a village shared by the Squamish and Lil’wat people at the confluence of the Cheakamus River and Rubble Creek in Whistler. After many years of respectful commerce, the villagers’ attitudes shifted and they began to disrespect one another. This called for punishment from the Thunderbird, who is said to have beat his wings to cause a volcanic eruption from the stratovolcano the Black Tusk. This in turn created a massive rockslide that buried the shared village under rock and debris and took the lives of many villagers. This trauma caused the two nations to recognize their need for one another and united them again.

The Black Tusk stratovolcano is estimated to have erupted in the late Pleistocene Period around 20 thousand years before present, to early Holocene Period around 1800 thousand years before present. This story is still told today as evidence of the longstanding and peaceful coexistence of the two peoples, who formally agreed to live and work together in Whistler on March 22, 2001.

The two peoples are known for using cedar heavily in both their infrastructures and pieces of clothing, but as colonization efforts took hold the art of canoe carving from cedar was nearly lost. However, thanks to Master Carver Ray Natraoro — who spent years seeking advise from elders and researching historical records — the art was revived.

A Salish hunting canoe is roughly 40 feet long, and the paddles used to move it in the water are surprisingly light-weight. This makes the movement of the canoe swift and simple with a team.

Many different and unique weaving styles are used as well by both men and women to create baskets and hats using mediums such as cedar splints and bull rushes.

On another end of the art spectrum, the Salish are also known for their blanket weaving. The patience and time used by weavers to collect tufts of mountain goat fur to weave into yarn for the blankets is extraordinary, as the time it took to weave just one blanket could be up to 10 years. Although the weavers used a specific dog breed to help substitute for goat fur, the higher members of Salish society wanted blankets that used only goat fur.

This patience has also transferred over into their efforts of cultural revitalisation and preservation — they have been working to bring their languages back to their youth with a fury as well. The beauty and extravagance of the landscape surrounding the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre is breathtaking, and the abundant knowledge to be learned is even more.

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