A Glorious Drive Into Native Traditions and Language

A Glorious Drive Into Native Traditions and Language

By: 
Hans Tammemagi
9/24/11

The Sea to Sky Highway, one of the worlds’s iconic drives, winds from Vancouver to Whistler, constantly snaking to and fro following the curves of bays, rising and falling with the topography of the Coastal Range Mountains, always rich with breathtaking scenery. But it is far more than a beautiful drive. It is also incorporates a unique cultural journey that provides an insight into the rich traditions and languages of the Squamish First Nation.

Signage in both English and the Squamish languages marks the 70-mile route, some carved attractively on the sides of large boulders. At seven notable viewpoints, information kiosks in a distinctive native cedar-hat shape present information about the sites and their traditional meaning to the Squamish peoples. You learn about mythological creatures, the meaning of mountain peaks and the animals and botany of the area. Every kilometre of the route is rich with First Nations’ history, supernatural beings and native place names.

Driving northward I stopped at the Stawamus Chief kiosk at the base of a massive mountain with a steep, ominous side favored by climbers. A Squamish legend tells that in mythological times humans were giants. Two of them were fighting over a woman, making a big mess, creating lakes and streams. The Creator decided to shrink them as punishment, but the giants hid in a longhouse. Instead of waiting for the giants to emerge, the Creator transformed the longhouse into stone – the very mountain that towered before me.

Nearby, Shannon Falls tumbles, down seemingly forever, a sacred place where medicine men went to gain spiritual oneness.

My next stop was at Brandywine Falls where the Cheakamus River tumbles into a pretty sediment-layered bowl. At the cedar-hat kiosk I read of how the Raven (Sk’ewk), annoyed at the Frog (Wexés), carried him high into the air and dropped him. Falling and flailing, Frog tore huge holes in the clouds causing torrential rains that flooded the land. This disturbed Thunderbird (?n7inyáxa7en), who was resting on nearby Black Tusk Mountain. He sent lightening across the land and flapped his wings causing thunder and destruction. Frog landed in the rising waters, almost hitting Killer Whale, causing him to flap his tail, which led to tidal waves that decimated the population. This the story of the Great Flood, a tale told in many cultures.

Finally, I reached Whistler with the snow-capped peaks of Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains towering high above. Soon I was at the culmination of the cultural journey, the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre. This imposing building has became a landmark since it opened in 2008. A large foyer with sweeping windows echoes a Squamish long house. Attached is a circular Lilwat pit house, its domed roof covered in native plants. The Cultural Centre was built for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which were truly remarkable because they embraced aboriginal peoples and involved them in a meaningful way.

Chief Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief and cultural ambassador for the Squamish Nation, greeted me. A part of the team who developed the cultural journey, he explained, “When we met with Olympic officials before the Games, we were astonished that they didn’t even know the origin of local place names like the Callaghan Valley (where the Nordic events were to take place). Names are important to the Squamish and Lil’wat people. Every place in our territory has a name and a story, all is recorded in our oral history. We proposed that signage indicating native names be placed along the Sea to Sky corridor.” That idea grew into the cultural journey, which is unique in the world.

Sarah Goodwin, the centre’s director of development, said, “In March we received funding for phase two of the cultural journey. We will add more kiosks, educational activities and work to make it a major tourist attraction.”

Chief Campbell, donned in traditional regalia, showed me around the centre. We meandered past colourful masks, traditional weavings and stopped at a large dugout canoe, made from a single old growth tree. “I love canoeing and participate in many traditional voyages,” he said. “The main purpose of this centre is not tourism,” he continued. “The centre is a place to preserve and revitalize our traditions, to celebrate our rich and vibrant culture and to share it with the world.”

Driving back to Vancouver, I stopped at the Tantalus Range kiosk. Gazing at the impressive mountains I recalled this is Chief Campbell’s favorite stop on the cultural journey for he loves mountaineering. The Squamish train mountain goat hunters from an early age, for the goats’ wool is highly prized. The kiosk signage explained that in mythological times a hunting group was caught in a terrible blizzard. The party was turned to stone and covered with snow. I could see how the foothills look like dogs, the higher hills like warriors, and the pinnacles like spear tips.

As I completed the cultural journey, descending toward the sea, the car weaving sinuously back and forth, I felt I understood the land better and was closer to it.

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