Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre: A Triumph of Architecture and First Nations Culture

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Evening event at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre
Evening event at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre

When the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre was being built in the heart of Whistler's upper village in 2007, a black bear and her cub ambled through the front entrance and had a good look around. Their presence was cause not for panic, but for celebration. After all, to the mostly Squamish and Lil'wat people on-site that day, these shaggy, sharp-clawed creatures were a blessing, signifying power and good luck.

Whether the presence of this bear family brought good luck or not, there's no question that the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, which opened for business in 2008, is a success on many levels.

An architectural vision
Legends and artifacts in the 'What we Treasure' museum at the Centre
Legends and artifacts in the "What we Treasure" museum at the Centre

This modern interpretation of a traditional Squamish longhouse and Lil'wat Istken (underground dwelling) is impressive, with walls of shimmering glass and a large cedar deck surrounding the building. The dramatic snow-capped mountains beyond — a traditional gathering and spiritual place for both Nations — provides a fitting backdrop.

Boulders painted with colourful pictographs grace the walkways along the approach to beautiful cedar entrance doors, which, aptly enough, feature an image of a bear carved by well-known local Lil'wat Nation artisans.

Inside, giant Douglas fir beams anchor the seven-metre-high Great Hall where you will find a wealth of Aboriginal artifacts from the Squamish and Lil'wat people. Massive hand-carved replica spindle whorls (an essential tool in traditional weaving) revolve overhead. A Salish hunting canoe carved from a single cedar tree is suspended from the ceiling, while hand woven blankets by Squamish Nation weavers hang on the walls alongside intricately woven cedar mats in patterns unique to Lil'wat weavers. In the gallery upstairs, carved masks and other artifacts and tools are displayed for visitors.

Bridging past to future

Shawnna Apodaca
Shawnna Apodaca greets guests at the main entrance to the Centre

Visitors to the Cultural Centre are impressed with the building itself, but the rave reviews are directed at the team of energetic and enthusiastic First Nations youth who conduct the guided tours and workshops, where visitors can learn the ancient arts of beading and weaving or a little of the Lil'wat and Squamish Nation traditional languages.

Lil'wat Nation Chief Leonard Andrew and Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacob believed it was important that the Centre provide visitors an authentic First Nations cultural experience. They also wanted a new generation of First Nations youth to reconnect to their past. “The circle is closing. Our circle was broken at one point in time,” said Chief Gibby Jacob. “Our ability to do the good things that we need to do for our children…is coming about again.”

Many of the young people at the Cultural Centre are graduates of the Aboriginal Youth Ambassador program. The program, begun in 2001 by the Squamish Nation was set up to provide British Columbia's Aboriginal youth with a strong sense of connection to their land and culture, while providing business experience and tourism training.

For Lil'wat ambassador Holly Joseph, her work at the Cultural Centre is an opportunity to share the many stories she learned as a child while berry picking with her mom. “Out of 10 children, only two of us remember the stories,” she said. “Now, in honor of my mom and the generations before her, I'm sharing those stories with visitors from all over the world. In a very real way, it keeps our ancestors alive.”

Learning how to make a medicine bag
Learning how to make a medicine bag

Roxy Lewis of the Squamish Nation, an ambassador since 2004, said she's learned a lot about both her own and the Líl'wat culture. She believes the Cultural Centre reflects just how far First Nations have come in the past 50 years. “At one time our people weren't allowed to speak our own language. Now, people actually want to learn about our language and culture.”

What better place to learn about them than here in this spectacular setting — the result of a committed partnership, inspired vision and, just maybe, the blessing of a mother bear and her cub.

For more on the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, visit their Web site  : www.slcc.ca

The photos in this story are provided by Gary Fiegehen and the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre