Josh our interpretative guide
Chris and I visited the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) on our visit to Whistler, British Columbia. It was built by two cooperating First Nations and is ranked by some as the number one Indigenous Cultural Centre in Canada. We knew nothing about it before we got there. One of the most impressive things about SLCC was that it was built by 2 competing (but cooperating) First Nations. Coming from a small city where religious groups often have trouble agreeing on what day it is, we found this delightfully surprising.
The Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation and Liĺwat7úl) (Lil’Wat Nation) say that they have coexisted respectfully as neighbours since time immemorial. Both nations have benefitted greatly from the land in which they were located on the west coast of Canada where the climate is relatively mild and food abundant. In particular they have thrived on the bounty of the ocean, the rivers, and the land — living in close relationship with the world around them.
Together these 2 proud nations have built the SLCC to share their cultural knowledge in order to inspire understanding and respect amongst all people, and they hope that by visiting their Cultural Centre, all visitors will embrace this vision and live by it.
Both nations have treated the site with respect, building on one side of the property — leaving the forested area mostly untouched. The building is designed to evoke the longhouses of the Squamish people and the Istken (traditional earthen pit house) of the Lil’wat people with a modern architectural interpretation.
Our guide, Josh, welcomed us with a song and then led us to a theatre where we were shown the film Where Rivers, Skies, and People Meet. With the film and guided walk we learned a lot about these First Nations.
Ethnobotanists have learned much about the usage of various plants by indigenous people, even ancient people. None of these plants was more important to the Indigenous people of the coast, than cedar.
British Columbia has 2 native species of cedar tree growing in its temperate rainforest. First there is Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)the larger of the two. The second is Yellow Cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis) is not a true cedar either.
According to Nancy Turner, Red Cedar is the most versatile and most widely-used plant among coastal First Nations. Because yellow cedar bark is softer and more pliable than Red Cedar, it is used often for making clothing and other fibrous materials. Red Cedar is used more often to make canoes. As a result it is the plant with a thousand uses.
They call the cedar “the Tree of Life.” They use the cedar tree for many purposes. For example they use it to make cedar pit houses. One was located on the grounds.
They build the pithouse in the earth so that it becomes one with the earth. They also use the cedar bark to make clothing. They use the roots for mats and room dividers so there would be some privacy in their homes.
As Alice Huang said, “The astounding variety of objects that can be created from a single tree is a testament to a profound cultural interrelationship between humans and plants.” That is what is important. The people were the land. They were the environment. That connection is absolutely essential to their identity. It is not merely ancillary. Sometimes non-indigenous people fail to grasp the importance of this. That is why they ask why indigenous groups can’t live eleswhere.
Indigenous people also used cedar in the tools they made and everyday objects they created out of the wood with those tools. As Josh explained, starting with the base of the tree they used the roots of the cedar to form cordage for hats and baskets. They created unique baskets, some of which were on display in the Cultural Centre. They could make their baskets waterproof and heatproof. As a result they were even able to use their baskets as pots and pans for cooking and boiling water! They used hot rocks to the heat the water in the baskets. Once the water was boiling they added food to it. Not a bad system. Roots were also used to make room dividers. As many as 40-60 people might be living in a pithouse, so privacy would be important.
The Indigenous people loved to use the cedar withes. These are the small sub-branches of the main branches. Some grow directly from the main trunk. Once the withes were harvest they could be used as cordage without any changes needing to be made. Some have called them the “bungee cord” of the temperate rain forest.
The withes are strong and lightweight and grow in very long strands, which then perfect for ropes and lashing. Coastal Indigenous people did not traditionally use metal nails or bolts. Instead they used withes to lash together planks on roofs or baseboards. They were therefore very important for house construction.
Josh explained that although the stripping of bark can damage a tree, the Indigenous people used great care to avoid causing damage. First they said a prayer and expressed their gratitude to the tree for all that it provided them. They respected the tree. They did not mow them down like Europeans did when they arrived on the west coast with their clear cutting practices that so appalled Indigenous people.
The men usually did the cutting down of the trees. The harvesting of the bark however was usually done by women. That required great skill. The women would not take more than 2 hands width of bark from a tree so that it would not be permanently harmed. That kept the tree alive and enabled it to be used again.Thanks to their efforts literally thousands of harvested trees that are still intact can be found throughout the region and all showing their characteristic scar marks.
The most versatile part of the cedar is the bark. Bark could be dyed and processed into different types of thread for mats, clothing, blankets, and hats. Like roots and withes, bark was also used to make ropes, baskets, and fishing nets. They used smashed brains from animals to rub into the materials to make them soft and pliable.
They really liked the inner bark of the Yellow Cedar because it was both soft and absorbent. Perfect for diapers for their children. There was no need for Pampers. Expectant mothers gave birth to their children in pits lined with the inner bark. They also used them for bedding, towels, and even sanitary napkins. Bark also made good kindling for fires and even tinder for matches and torches. Expecting mothers gave birth in a pit lined with Yellow Cedar bark to receive the infant. Furthermore, dried bark burned slowly, providing excellent tinder for matches and torches.
Because cedar wood is so strong yet lightweight, it could be easily split and made into totems, masks, and longhouses. One vitally important use for cedar was in canoe construction. Josh showed us two important types of canoes in the SLCC. The SLCC had a fine example of two different types of canoes. One was very large, the other small. The large one held a number of canoeists and a captain who guided the paddlers. They would usually sing songs as they worked. Josh gave us a cedar paddle to hold and I was struck by how light it was. They were light yet sturdy enough for heavy paddling. West Coast indigenous people had a unique design for paddles with a sharp point that enabled them to cut through kelp.
Longhouses formed the central dwelling unit of each village, with large extended families living together under the same roof. There could be up to 60 people living in one longhouse. Naturally, cedar poles formed the foundations of the house, and they were followed by a framework of fluted beams overlaid with cedar roof planks. Sometimes carved house frontal poles would be positioned at the entrance. This was very common among the Haida and Tlingit.