Whistler, B.C., is world-renowned for its incredible mountain adventures, from skiing to mountain biking, but you’ll be missing a richer and deeper part of Whistler until you encounter the stories of its First Peoples and its land.
Legend says there was an ancient village called Spo7ez, shared by the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh and L̓il̓wat7úl nations, two distinct and neighboring cultures, at the confluence of Rubble Creek and Cheakamus River. They lived together peacefully for many years, but over time, the villagers started to disrespect each other. Because of this, the Thunderbird caused a volcano to erupt and a rockslide buried Spo7ez.
It was a reminder from the Thunderbird to the people that they were friends, family and neighbors, so they must work together.
Ever since, the Squamish and the Líl̓wat nations have lived and worked together where their two territories meet — the area around present-day Whistler. They take pride in sharing their culture, in who they are and where they come from, and invite others to walk with them while they are guests in their territory through these series of experiences.
Consider these activities for a deeper cultural experience on your next visit to Whistler.
A cultural journey through the Sea-to-Sky Corridor
With ocean views on one side and the Coast Mountains on the other, the route through the Sea-to-Sky Corridor from Vancouver to Whistler has been named among the world’s best coastal drives. Not only are the views breathtaking, the road trip is also a cultural journey.
Stop at viewpoints along the highway and look for the kiosks, which feature a design inspired by the woven cedar hats worn by the Salish peoples. There you will learn how giants, two-headed serpents and other mythical beings shaped the land you see.
If you download the audio stories, you can hear Native speakers tell you themselves. The maps and audio for this self-guided tour can be downloaded at the Cultural Journey website.
Squamish and Líl̓wat cultural exhibits
The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre is an architectural masterpiece combining the form of the Squamish longhouse and the Líl̓wat Istken, a nod to the close relationship of these nations. The cultural center is the focal point of this itinerary.
Walking past the huge, intricately carved cedar doors, you will find yourself standing under two giant, hand-carved spinning whorls. The Great Hall is 220 feet of floor-to-ceiling glass walls with mountain and forest views, and the Istken Hall is circular, with a domed earthen roof covered with living, native plants.
You’ll stand in front of a cedar pole carving and hear the drumbeat begin, strong and beating in time to the heartbeat of the Earth. When your cultural ambassador’s voice joins this ancient song, you can feel it rise up inside you and fill the space, transporting you into the story of his people, the story that is told in the art that surrounds you.
The center is a revitalization of the cultures of the Squamish and the Líl̓wat, and an expression of the oral history that survived the flu and smallpox epidemics and the age of residential schools that fractured families.
The cultural ambassadors give a depth to the exhibits at the cultural center, bringing traditional lessons and personal experiences to demonstrations on wool and cedar weaving, the sustainable harvesting of natural materials, the striking differences between the regalia of these two nations, and cedar pole and canoe carvings. The guide when my husband and I visited with our kids was the son of one of the master carvers of the big canoe in the Great Hall, and a woodcarver, too, who had his own work on display.
The “Truth and Reconciliation” exhibit on the upper floor highlights the Sixties Scoop and residential schools, reflects on intergenerational trauma, and honors those who have been affected. The “Our Living Languages” exhibit, running through May 23, encourages visitors to interact with and appreciate the diversity and resilience of First Nations languages around British Columbia.
If the art inspires you, use that creative energy for one of the cultural center’s workshops featuring a traditional craft — and learn how to make some art yourself. Visitors can make dreamcatchers, design beaded earrings, carve a cedar paddle rattle or even make a drum.
While your hands are at work, you get to learn the traditions that go along with the items and why they are made the way they are. Our kids chose to make the medicine bags and really enjoyed the beading and putting the bag together. Making art is fun at any age.
When you’re hungry, the Thunderbird Café is the place to go.
The menu is inspired by traditional Squamish and Líl̓wat cuisine with a focus on fresh local ingredients. Your selections include smoked salmon panini, venison chili, xuxem berry tea, dessert bars and bannock doughnuts. We will keep going back for the bannock tacos and the chance to eat in the Isken Hall, with windows all around overlooking the Lost Lake woods. The cafe is located in the admission-free area of the cultural center, so you can come back anytime during your visit for seconds.
For an even more immersive experience with food, singing, dancing and drumming, sign up for one of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre feasts, which also take place in the Isken Hall. The next feast is March 18.
One of the most transformative experiences on this journey is walking through the forests of Whistler toward Lost Lake with Saopalaz, an expert herbalist and respected Líl̓wat elder who leads the Talking Trees Tour hosted by Talaysay Tours, which offers authentic Indigenous cultural and ecotourism experiences in the area.
We discovered that shrubs and berries on the ground that we had taken for granted held potent medicines that helped heal people when Western medicine did not. Oregon grape to strengthen the liver, fireweed gel that helps with burns, cottonwood buds for healing cuts and scrapes, medicine for poor circulation and diabetes — the healing was all around us.
The plants are there for energy when you’re tired and when you need to lift your spirits. We learned about harvesting cedar roots and cedar bark, and the Indigenous lessons of taking just enough for what you need. If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.
Taking this journey, retracing the steps of our guides’ ancestors, experiencing the art and ancient designs, hearing the same stories the children long ago heard — this connects us to the peoples who stood before us on this same land. The stories are old, but they stay alive in the people. Even though the stories are ancient, the lessons are strangely modern and still applicable to us.
The land is filled with medicine, it is capable of healing us. Remember that we are friends, family, and neighbors, and we need to work together.
You’ll leave feeling more whole, and more connected to the land than you were before. And later, when you stand on the mountain, you will recognize the stories in the shapes of the land — and it will be more beautiful.