Discovering the Sacred Spirit of Whistler

January 8, 2015 Updated: January 8, 2015

My visit to a First Nations cultural centre transformed the way I saw Whistler and the world

SUDDENLY, THE HULKING mountain looked like a lair for mythical, winged creatures. The misty blue islands seemed to be floating freely in the placid grey waters. Huge boulders were no longer just rocks, but the remnants of a battle between giants. And the highway I was travelling on, the famous Sea-to-Sky that runs between Vancouver and Whistler, bore traces of an ancient trade route.

My visit to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler had literally changed the way I saw the world.

The Sea-to-Sky corridor is much more than spectacular scenery — it is also a Cultural Journey.

Looking out the window of the bus at mystical Howe Sound, everything looked different than it did just three days before, when I rode the bus up to Whistler, along this same highway. The land was the same, but I was different.

On the drive back to Vancouver, I looked at the mountains, the ocean and the trees and saw them as sacred, as alive, and as active characters in the story of this beautiful landscape. I was excited to remember some of the mythology I learned, and dug the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) brochure out of my pack. Inside, there’s a map of the Sea-to-Sky corridor showing many of the landmarks of their story, and you can stop at kiosks and lookouts on a self-guided journey.

My visit to the SLCC literally changed the way I saw the world — which is a lot to be said for a short visit to a cultural centre and museum.

A showcase for the legends, culture and people

I went to Whistler, British Columbia expecting to visit a top-rated mountain resort and enjoy the many recreational and fine dining options. And I did. I stayed at the elegant Four Seasons Hotel, rode the spectacular Peak-to-Peak and soaked at the Scandinave Spa — and they were all wonderful experiences.

But I discovered something much more exciting and profound in Whistler, and something frankly unexpected. My visit to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre opened my eyes to the spirit of this ruggedly beautiful land.

The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) showcases the aboriginal history, culture, art and spirituality of this region. Whistler — the mountain and surrounding area — is the borderland between the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations, and the land historically belonged to both, which is why the museum and cultural centre was built here.

The stunning, glass-fronted building houses exhibitions, artifacts, a cafe that serves native-inspired foods and a store that sells locally made arts and crafts. The grounds feature walking trails and traditional dwellings, including a longhouse, where you can try your hand at making a cedar bracelet.

Inukshuk at the top of Whistler Mountain (Mariellen Ward, breathedreamgo)
Inukshuk at the top of Whistler Mountain (Mariellen Ward, breathedreamgo)

Arriving at the SLCC, you are welcomed by a local guide from the Squamish or Lil’wat First Nations. The youthful guides are ambassadors for their people, and the centre gives them both employment opportunities and helps teach them about their own cultural heritage, keeping it alive in the face of increasing encroachment.

My guide, a young woman named Charlamain Mersades Jim, is one of four siblings in the same family who work at the SLCC. My tour started with Charlamain performing a Women’s Warrior Song. It was followed by a short and informative movie, a guided tour of the building and exhibits and finally a chance to experience making a craft (a cedar bracelet).

The land is our people. It speaks to us and tells us who we are and where we’re going. The mountains were gifts from the creator. We were given the responsibility to look after them. To understand us, you must see our relationship to the land, rivers, forests.

Charlamain and some of the other staff members I spoke with explained to me how the Squamish and Lil’wat people lived in close connection with the land. For example, if they needed cedar wood for making household objects, they stripped only two hand-widths of bark from each tree, ensuring the trees would heal.

Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (Mariellen Ward, breathedreamgo)
Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (Mariellen Ward, breathedreamgo)

They spoke extensively about their spiritual beliefs, and I was surprised to learn they believed in reincarnation. Each person belongs to a clan, named for a totem animal, and it is believed you will come back as that totem animal. So, if you are a member of the bear clan, you will not hunt and kill bears.

There are so many good reasons to visit the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, from learning about the First Nations culture to helping support an organization that has revitalized the people of these nations. The building of the SLCC solved a land dispute between the Squamish and Lil’wat; it has provided training, skill development and employment opportunities for the youth; and it has preserved the cultural heritage of two of Canada’s First Nations.

Visiting the SLCC is a Canadian Signature Experience. You can learn more about it by checking out their website here.

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Copyright © 2015 by Breathedreamgo. This article was written by Mariellen Ward and originally published on breathedreamgo.com

Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and publisher of the meaningful adventure travel blog Breathedreamgo.com for seekers and travellers to India, Canada and beyond.