A traditional drumbeat and song echoes in the bright expanse of the Great Hall. Amidst towering totem poles next to a striking 12-metre dugout canoe, this is the start of a guided tour of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. A reinterpretation of a longhouse and Istken, traditional dwellings of the Squamish and Lil’wat, the museum is set in the two First Nations’ overlap territory, “where rivers, mountains and people meet” in what is now Whistler, B.C.
After the nations signed a one-of-a-kind, historic Protocol Agreement of cooperation and goodwill, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre became its hallmark. Its collection of art and artifacts spurs guides to share oral stories and history. “Tour guides are encouraged to talk about their favourite exhibits,” says Lil’wat member Alison Pascal, a longtime guide and now junior curator. For her, it’s a totem by Squamish artist, Aaron Nelson-Moody, carved from a single, massive cedar tree. Inspired by the ut’sam witness project that stopped clear-cut logging in nearby Elaho Valley, the message is “we’re still here, we’re still using the territory,” says Pascal.
The personalized tour continues through the What We Treasure exhibit of traditional artifacts: regalia, masks, baskets, blankets, canoes and even a thousand-plus-year-old stone bowl (the oldest piece in the museum). Stairs lead past replicas of pictographs to another exhibit space that alternates between contemporary art, photographic archives, craftwork demos and interactive workshops such as weaving.
“The whole idea behind having a cultural centre is to allow people to meet our Nation members to encourage that relationship building,” says Pascal. She’s done this countless times, sitting together with museum visitors to twist cedar bark into rope as a souvenir bracelet, creating something both tangible and spiritual to take away.