As the Winter Olympics rapidly approach, culture mavens will be happy to discover that there’s more to Whistler, B.C., than bone-rattling outdoor sports. Highlights of village history are offered on the Valley of Dreams tour hosted by Whistler Museum.
The entrance to Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre
Longtime resident Karen Blaylock promises curious journalists she will “tell all” about village scandals. But apart from some photos of kooky skiers and unclad hippie squatters – the latter were evicted in the 1960s – there seems a dearth of skeletons in Whistler’s closet. As she passes around archival photos, Karen tells us that one of the squatters later returned to become a popular town councillor.
As early as 1914, vacationers had been taking the Pacific Great Eastern Railway up the mountain from Squamish to enjoy summer holidays in what was then a logging and mining community. The town’s heyday as a summer destination peaked in the 1930s, when it ranked second only to Jasper, Alta., in western popularity. One long-lived lakeside hostelry, the Rainbow Lodge Fishing Resort, advertised its enchantment thus: “The River of Golden Dreams and Romance.” Fruit trees were plentiful; trout fishing abundant.
Blaylock arrived in 1969 – her father worked with BC Hydro – to discover a town of 100 souls named after the “whistling” sound made by indigenous marmots. The mountain had been open for skiing since 1966 and securing the Olympics for Whistler has been on the local government agenda at least since ’68. Spurred on by Nancy Greene’s gold and silver medal wins in Grenoble that same year, the town promptly built its first Gondola and day lodge.
A second ski hill, Blackcomb, named by an early settler for its resemblance to a rooster’s comb, opened next. As Whistler became more and more popular as a winter resort, more lifts and gondolas were added – the spectacular “Peak 2 Peak” Gondola now connects Whistler directly to Blackcomb.
In the town, celebrity chefs reign; restaurants serve some of the best sushi in the West. Not to mention that a wish has finally come true – the Olympics have arrived.
Eons before summer and winter visitors dreamed of making the trek to Whistler, the Squamish and Lil’Wat First Nations called this stretch of B.C. coast and mountains home. The sparkling jewel in Whistler Village today is a spectacular 30,400-square-foot complex combining the architectural styles of the Squamish (Coast Salish) with the Lil’Wat (Interior Salish). Visitors enter a grand glass and wood version of a Squamish longhouse; other architecture in the building is typical of Lil’Wat dwellings, called Istken; these were built directly into hillsides by mountain peoples seeking warmth in the long winter months.
This energy-efficient LEED Centre opened in July 2008 and marks an unprecedented co-operative venture by peoples who have lived on the western coast and mountains since time immemorial. The centre will also play a significant role as a visitor’s destination and event venue in the coming Games. “Reviving Our Culture, Reclaiming Our Language” reads the vision statement for this splendid centre, with its views of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
As visitors arrive, they are welcomed by “ambassadors” who conduct a traditional drumming and singing ceremony. Our group is divided into First Nation clans – wolf, raven, and eagle – and taught how to move appropriately to the drumbeat. After dancing our best imitations of wolves and birds, we shake off our inhibitions as well. Everyone is now eager for a taste of First Nations culture.
Marvelling at the high-ceilinged Great Hall, surrounded by its curving glass windows, we pass the men and ladies’ canoes on display. A magnificent Squamish hunting canoe, 40 feet long, is made from a single cedar tree; tradition dictates that it be returned to the ocean each year, to honour its spirit. Built by master canoe maker Ray Natrall, this craft marks the triumphant re-emergence of an almost-lost art.
Wandering out to the balcony, we happen on a man intently carving a large totem pole. Artist Rick Harry, of Squamish-Kwagiwn descent, has been sculpting for 32 years. He first finds a suitable cedar tree among the 30 per cent of old-growth cedar still remaining in B.C.’s forests. He then dries it for four years before wielding his knife. “It looks like butter,” comments a visitor. “And carves like it, too,” responds this genial master carver.
His flowing arrangement of totemic figures of the salmon and the owl is bound for Scotland, to join the 30 Harry carvings now displayed in the Scottish landscape. This connection was forged when Harry first visited the Edinburgh Festival several years ago. “I was only supposed to make four,” he says, smiling. In Scotland, he tells us, “I listen to the stones and look for similarities between Squamish and Celtic designs.”
Our tour continues with our artist-guide, Gerald, of the Lil’Wat First Nation. While explaining the legends of his people, Gerald tells us about receiving his own ancestral name at the traditional age of 13, a name that translates as “Cloud Shape Shifting Rainmaker.” (Harry inherited a First Nations name, Xwa Lack Tun, but its exact meaning has been lost to time, so “I tell people it means handsome.”)
A passionate artist since the age of five, Gerald confesses that he “fell in love with the smell of cedar” as a child. As he shows us the totems, bowls, masks, cloaks, headdresses and rattles on display – what he calls “regalia” – he makes it clear that art is an inseparable part of First Nations life.
“The artist has a high status in the community, whether they are drum makers or lacrosse stick makers.” As he speaks, he holds a deer-hide drum adorned with a wolf-clan motif. “Each drum is unique,” he says. “Each has a heart. My drum’s heart is here.”
If you go: www.tourismwhistler.com; www.whistlermuseum.org; walking tours are held July and August; Olympics exhibit opens Feb. 2010; Squamish Lil’Wat Culture Centre is open all year round; www.slcc.ca, 1-866-441-7522.