WHISTLER, B.C. - The large wooden doors of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre open slightly and a small boy pokes his head through the narrow crack.
“G’day. Can I come in?” asks the young Australian who looks like a mini Crocodile Dundee.
“Of course you can,” says Alison Burns, who invites the youngster over to where she’s weaving a colourful shawl using techniques her ancestors perfected thousands of years ago.
The soft-spoken Burns, one of 20 First Nations people who work at the one-of-a-kind Aboriginal centre, tells her young visitor the technique she is employing to create the detailed garment was almost lost but “elders here at the centre taught me and about 200 others how to weave like this and now this tradition will live on forever.”
The cultural centre, which sits opposite the iconic Fairmont Chateau Whistler Hotel in this outdoor mecca, opened in 2008 and was a hit with foreign visitors who attended the 2010 Winter Olympics, which Whistler co-hosted with Vancouver.
“This is one of the great legacies of the 2010 Winter Games,” says Casey Vanden Heuvel, the executive director of the First Nations cultural centre, which is filled with the largest collection of Squamish and Lil’wat art and artefacts ever assembled.
“Actually, the name ‘cultural centre’ often confuses people and that’s why some are hesitant to enter; they’re not sure if it’s open to the public,” says Vanden Heuvel. “We’re always debating whether to call it a museum or cultural centre.”
The greatest achievement of the cultural centre, according to Venden Heuvel, was the collaboration of the Lil’wat and Squamish people to make it a reality.
Above: The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre is one of the most interesting museums in Canada.
“This is the only place in North America where two First Nations People have come together to create something like this. Negotiations were very delicate and in the end it was decided that everything had to be split 50-50 — so half our staff are Lil’wat and half are Squamish,” says the director.
What Venden Heuvel seems most proud of, though, is that “50 per cent of the funding to build this marvelous building was raised by the Lil’wat and Squamish people themselves and the rest came from different levels of government and corporate sponsors.”
Meanwhile, over in the corner, the young Australian is listening wide-eyed as the delightful Burns explains how her grandparents wove shawls similar to the one she’s working on for First Nations representatives who travelled to London in 1906 to present Aboriginal land claims to England’s King Edward VII.
“Wow,” exclaims the young man.
“But there were no sheep in these parts back then, so my ancestors raised woolly dogs and sheared them just like you Australians shear sheep today,” Burns tells her attentive listener.
“Australians, Americans and Europeans delight in what they see and hear at our centre,” says Vanden Heuvel. “We’ve had over 100,000 visitors since our opening and we’re averaging 25,000 per year now.
“The Australians really relate to what they see here because of their own Aboriginal culture and Europeans are fascinated by the displays and cultural events we host.”
A major source of income for the centre comes from local hotels like the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, which uses the centre for gala events.
Interestingly, it’s not the first time the Squamish and Lil’wat have co-existed in one place. Vanden Heuvel says the two nations actually lived together in a place called Spo7z (pronounced Spoez — the 7 represents a “slash” in the native language), very near where the town of Squamish is located today.
Left: Native Canadians showcase their weaving talents at the centre. Middle: Traditional masks make the experience very educational. Right: Indian artifacts fill the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre.
“The Squamish and Lil’wat would actually vacation near where Whistler is now,” says the director.
“Things weren’t always harmonious between the Squamish and Lil’wat back then, though. But when a landslide wiped out a lot of their shared village, the incident was taken as a sign from the Creator that the two nations should get along and relations were much improved after that — and obviously continue today.”
The young Australian is mesmerized by the wealth of First Nations artefacts displayed over the centre’s three floors. “The canoes are really neat,” says the Aussie.
Between 50 and 100 items are on display at any one time in the 30,400-square-foot centre, where staff perform traditional dances, play unique tribal instruments and educate visitors on First Nations culture and traditions.
The centre’s gift shop is filled with books on Aboriginal history and culture and the woven scarves and blankets created on-site by artisans like Burns are big sellers.
“Where did your people come from?” the young Aussie asks a staff member.
“There’s proof now (unearthed in nearby Oregon) that our people have been here (the Pacific Northwest) for over 10,000 years — prior to the last Ice Age,” the Lil’wat guide tells the young man. “There’s also a lot of evidence now that my people originally came from Asia — across the Bering Strait from China and Russia.”
The 2010 Winter Olympics produced a lot of winners but the biggest winners are the people who come to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre because this place is pure gold. •
The SLCC is open daily between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. / Admission: $18 for adults $13.50 for seniors and students. / An informative 12-minute multi-media film runs every 20 minutes in the centre’s 80-seat theatre. / First Nations people are in the centre all day showcasing their creative talents in weaving and dancing. / Representatives from the Squamish and Lil’wat nations guide large groups around the facility. / The centre also offers a “cultural forest walk” where visitors learn about native plants. / For information, go to www.slcc.ca or www.shop.slcc.ca
/ For Fairmont Whistler info: www.fairmont.com