Hans Tammemagi
The Skwachàys Lodge in Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside neighborhood educates travelers about Native cultures while supporting indigenous artists who are finding their footing in the city, and in life.

Skwachàys Lodge Showcases Native Culture by Supporting Indigenous Artists

Hans Tammemagi

Stepping into Vancouver’s Skwachàys Lodge, a visitor is immediately immersed in First Nations culture. The lobby is a gallery showcasing Native art; the meeting room resonates in aboriginal motifs, and each of the 18 guest rooms is decorated in elegant indigenous themes.

The lobby of the Skwachàys Lodge in Vancouver doubles as a gallery showcasing Native art and culture. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)

Topped by a towering totem pole and a traditional longhouse, the hotel also offers sweat lodge and smudging ceremonies. No other hotel in Canada is so steeped in aboriginality.

But that isn’t even the most compelling facet of this unique dwelling place. Skwachàys (pronounced Skwatch-eyes) is also a residence and training school for Native artists, many of whom would otherwise be at risk of homelessness. There are 24 studio apartments for selected artists, and all the profits from the hotel rooms and art gallery subsidize these. A large basement workshop provides space for carving and painting. The hotel offers the residents an opportunity to make and sell their art, develop a career and earn income.

The lodge, which opened in October 2014, is at the edge of the gritty Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the roughest neighborhood in British Columbia. The area overflows with homeless people, drugs, addictions, mental problems, petty crime and, most of all, hopelessness. A disproportionate number of these people are First Nation, Métis and Inuit.

“This is an exciting project,” said Dave Eddy, president of the Vancouver Native Housing Society, which owns the lodge, and a driving force behind the resident-artists concept. “We are providing housing relief for a traditionally impoverished segment of the population, but more important, we are also helping them forge careers and stand on their own feet.”

This unique symbiosis of boutique hotel, low-income housing and art school houses 14 men and 10 women—19 carvers and painters, three actors, one filmmaker and a musician. Since only emerging artists are selected, they are all striving to become recognized. It’s difficult, however, because their marketing skills are patchy, or missing altogether.

“In the first year our focus was on getting the hotel running,” said Eddy. “But now attention has shifted to the resident artists. No question: There are numerous challenges to overcome.”

James Hunter of the Lower Cayuga of the Mohawk Six Nations coordinates the Artists in Residence program.

“The goal is to give the resident artists a safe and supportive environment and help them become successful artists,” Hunter said. “I’m excited. There’s terrific potential.”

Clifton Fred of the Tlingit First Nation in the Yukon has lived at the lodge since the beginning. His unique compositions weaving together pencil drawings and poetry decorate three guest rooms, and his work sells in the lobby gallery.

Clifton Fred, a Skwachàys Lodge artist in residence, draws in his basement workshop. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)

Fred has had a difficult background. His mother and father, who had suffered at residential schools, were dysfunctional parents, and Fred became a ward of the government at age 13. He ran away and proceeded to get in trouble, ultimately serving seven years in prison.

Clifton Fred, an indigenous artist who lives at Skwachàys Lodge, shows some of his work. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)

“Being able to stay at Skwachàys has helped me straighten out my life,” said Fred, now age 47. “Getting subsidized rent is huge, and it’s particularly good to have a safe place to work and stay.”

Hunter explained they are refining the selection process to weed out those who aren’t serious about their art, and to maintain the safety of the space.

“We make it clear we don’t condone drink or drugs,” he said. “We’re after individuals who want to succeed, who will be good members. We want to build an arts community here they will be proud of and will contribute to.”

Often it takes time to acclimate, even to the supportive atmosphere, and to find one’s place.

“Skwachàys has enormous potential,” said new resident Vanessa Walterson, 36, Cree from Manitoba who started painting four years ago and moved into the lodge in January. “But so far I haven’t met anyone and feel lonely.”

That’s a common experience for those just entering, Hunter noted, and it’s an issue they are working to rectify.

“Many of the residents lack confidence and feel isolated,” he said. “To get them to know, trust and support each other, we’re just introducing a monthly traditional talking circle lead by an elder.”

Walterson said this could be very helpful, as she led a visitor deeper into the Eastside neighborhood, along streets dotted with homeless and desperate people. At Ravens Eye, a Native housing unit, Walterson proudly pointed to four colorful acrylic paintings hanging in the high-ceilinged gallery.

“Some of my work is already selling,” she said. “My long-term goal is to become so well known that I can travel to other cities with my shows.”

Vanessa Walterson, Cree of Manitoba, poses with her artwork. She is a newly arrived resident at Skwachàys Lodge in Vancouver. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)

Blocking her way, however, is that she does not have a website, a business card or a brochure. And she has few connections in the art world.

To change that, Skwachàys is setting up seminars to help the artists gain more ground. One course will address social media, teaching how to set up websites and Facebook pages so the artists can promote their work. Classes will also be given on topics such as writing grant proposals and developing business plans.

“We don’t have much of a budget,” said Hunter. “So we’re looking for creative ways to raise money to pay lecturers.”

Several initiatives are being explored, with the long-term goal of making Skwachàys a recognized and respected art center. For example, workshops are being developed in which residents will teach hotel guests how to carve, paint and make jewelry. Also, established guest artists are encouraged to visit the lodge, make presentations and put on shows in the gallery. The residents will learn from and be motivated by the visiting artists.

Gary Morin, a Métis from Saskatchewan and a former resident, successfully held a solo art show, Blood and Honey, in the Skwachàys Gallery. Morin, who lived there for about a year and a half, is enthusiastic about the lodge, and eager to give back.

“This place provided a home I could afford and also is an outlet for selling my art,” he said.

Eddy is confident this unique approach to helping Native artists can be replicated elsewhere.

“It’s a portable model,” he said. “Edmonton and Winnipeg are both showing interest. The main obstacles are acquiring a suitable property and, of course, the funding.” 

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