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Squamish-Lilwat Cultural Centre will welcome the world

WHISTLER, British Columbia – The Squamish-Lilwat Cultural Centre, an imposing and dramatic building set against snow-capped mountains, has become a landmark in Whistler, British Columbia, since it opened in July 2008.

It was designed to resemble traditional dwellings. A large foyer with sweeping windows echoes a Squamish longhouse. Attached is a circular Lilwat istken, or pit house, its domed roof covered in native plants.

On entering the lobby, an appealing place with large colorful banners hanging from the 30-foot ceiling, visitors are greeted by drumming and a welcome song. The lobby features displays and large dugout canoes made from single old-growth cedar trees.

A film explains the life of the two neighboring nations and how they have lived side by side for millennia. Because some of their territories overlap, in 2001 they signed a protocol to work together to share the bounties of the common land.

“The main purpose of this centre is not tourism,” explained Squamish Chief Gibby Jacob. “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.” Jacob was a key player in establishing the centre and also is on the board of directors for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The upcoming Olympic Games, which will be held in February 2010, will focus the world’s attention on Whistler and on the culture and spirit of the Squamish and Lilwat First Nations.

A tour guide explains the difference between the cultures of the two nations. The Lilwat, more a forest people, traditionally wore leather buckskin clothing, while the Squamish, more a coastal people, built sea-going canoes and wore clothes woven of wool and cedar. The importance of weaving is illustrated at several displays. The Squamish bred dogs for their hair, and they gathered wool from wild mountain goats.

In the museum, dozens of ceremonial masks are displayed, similar to those used for thousands of years. “These are working masks,” said the guide, “and are used today in important ceremonies such as weddings and name giving. Next to the masks are two modern snowboards decorated with bright traditional designs.

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The Aboriginal Youth Ambassador program is a cornerstone of the centre. Young people train with elders and Native cultural experts learning about carving, regalia making, storytelling and traditional plants. Twenty of the staff at the centre have been trained and they, in turn, have helped train about 120 other youths throughout the two nations. I was impressed by the friendliness of the staff and how comfortably and knowledgeably they answered questions.”

Lunch is served at the café, which offers traditional foods like salmon chowder, venison chili and bannock with salmon berries.

“The Olympics are going to be crazy, incredibly busy,” said Sarah Goodwin, the training and program development manager. “These Olympics will have the greatest participation by indigenous peoples in games history, and our centre will be right at the heart of things. We are expanding our hours, bringing in performers and artists from across Canada and offering storytelling and musical and dancing presentations. The public will participate in weaving a commemorative Olympic blanket and carving wood panels that will be placed in front of the longhouse.”

Behind the main building is a Squamish longhouse with cedar beams over three-feet in diameter. Youth ambassadors teach visitors how to create traditional cedar bracelets, medicine bags and mini-drums.

Strategies are being developed to ensure the financial viability of the centre. In addition to traditional events, corporate events are being organized and the various meeting places are available to rent for events such as weddings. On Sundays, the istken is home to a farmers’ market with booths overflowing with vegetables, fruits, jams and crafts.

Behind the main buildings, a forest walking loop has display boards describing various facets of this alpine forest and show the connection between Native people and nature.

There is strong community support for the cultural centre.

“The Squamish-Lilwat Cultural Centre is the most important thing to happen in Whistler in the past decade,” said Kevin Damaskie at Whistler’s Centre for Sustainability. “It makes me feel good about my town.”

The Cultural Centre is ready to welcome the world to Whistler.