Roam through British Columbia, from an award-winning cultural center in remote Haida Gwaii to a sleek Vancouver hotel where nightly rates paid by guests subsidize First Nations artists.

Share story

The glittering city of Vancouver, B.C., is growing fast, luring people from around the world. But visitors can glimpse a different side of the city at places that are dedicated to the First Nations, the native peoples who’ve been here for thousands of years.

Stay at a First Nations-run hotel in downtown Vancouver; see artwork at a major museum and gallery; and dine on traditional salmon, bison and bannock (fry bread).

Or travel beyond Vancouver to see First Nations museums and historic places, or enjoy festivals and ecotours, scattered through British Columbia. All are set amid the glorious landscapes and seascapes of British Columbia, where vast, tangled forests and waters teeming with salmon and whales shaped the spirituality, art and daily life of the First Nations, as Canada’s indigenous people are known.

First Nations tourism is a way to make money and provide jobs. But it’s “also about cultural revitalization, about preserving and promoting the culture and languages,” said Keith Henry, CEO of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.

Totem poles made by Haida artists  and other First Nations carvers are on display in the Great Room at the Museum of Anthropology. The museum is on the UBC campus in Vancouver. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Totem poles made by Haida artists and other First Nations carvers are on display in the Great Room at the Museum of Anthropology. The museum is on the UBC campus in Vancouver. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

“It’s some of the most powerful work that’s being done, ” said Henry, whose nonprofit organization helps build First Nations tourism and promotes it to visitors. Aboriginal-controlled tourism was worth more than Cdn. $42 million in 2013, the most recent year for statistics, said Henry. And it’s been growing strongly.

Like many aboriginal peoples, First Nations in B.C. are rebuilding their cultures with social, legal, artistic and economic activism, including tourism (although not casino tourism, as in Washington state, because of legal restrictions on gambling).

There has been much to overcome. With European settlement going full force from the mid-1800s in British Columbia, First Nations lands were taken over (and vastly smaller Indian reservations created).

New diseases and alcohol were introduced; traditional ceremonies and languages forbidden; and young children literally were ripped from their parents’ arms and taken to faraway government-authorized boarding schools, a practice that continued for more than a century and devastated aboriginal families and cultural continuity.

The government of Canada formally apologized in 2008 for 150,000 children who were forcibly removed to residential schools. Earlier this month, a Canadian truth-and-reconciliation commission issued a sweeping report on the lingering, devastating impacts of residential schools and gave dozens of recommendations on the way forward.

The Skwachays Lodge, which houses 24 native artists and features an aboriginal gallery, is where to stay in Vancouver, B.C., if you are looking for a place to spend your vacation dollars that benefits others. (Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

While there’s grim First Nations history, there’s also much cultural richness and pride. And visitors can enjoy themselves, learn a bit and do some good at enterprises such as the Skwachays Lodge in Vancouver.

The First Nations-run hotel is on the east edge of downtown, in a century-old building that has been painstakingly restored into a stylish boutique hotel with a social conscience.

Eighteen sleek guest rooms are decorated with original artwork by aboriginal artists from across Western Canada, from paintings of spawning salmon on the walls to a raven design on a headboard. The nightly rates paid by guests for one of the Skwachays rooms on the top three floors subsidizes the rent of two dozen First Nations artists who live in rooms on three lower floors. Skwachays is run by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, a group that provides low-income housing for aboriginal people.

A guest room at Skwachays Lodge in Vancouver.. Each of the 18 rooms is decorated with different aboriginal-themed artwork.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A guest room at Skwachays Lodge in Vancouver.. Each of the 18 rooms is decorated with different aboriginal-themed artwork. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

FIRST NATIONS BACKGROUND

By the numbers

British Columbia is home to about 155,000 First Nations people (both those with and without federally registered Indian status), according to Statistic Canada. That’s about 18 percent of Canada’s First Nations peoples.

Roughly half live on the several hundred Indian reservations scattered across B.C. The remainder live in communities throughout the province, including thousands in Vancouver.

Names matter

In Canada, the preferred term is First Nations — not natives nor Native Americans. In addition, the term Indian has complicated legal and colonial connotations, although it’s used by some groups, such as smaller Indian bands and longstanding organizations such as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. For a discussion, see bit.ly/1SD883J.

The term “aboriginals” now is often used to refer to First Nations people, although it formally includes Canada’s other federally recognized indigenous people, the Inuit of Arctic Canada and the Metis, a distinctive mixed-race people of First Nations and other descent (mostly European).

Land claims

First Nations in B.C. have been very active in land claims that cover vast swaths of the province, both through a treaty process and lawsuits. Only a few treaties were ever signed in British Columbia. Courts have ruled in recent years that First Nations retain aboriginal title to land and that they must be consulted on changes and development on government-controlled lands.

“We get a lot of Canadians and Americans staying who are interested in the aboriginal experience, in seeing the art. And Europeans and Australians,” said Maggie Edwards, general manager of Skwachays. “They’re travelers who are really interested in First Nations culture, and socially conscious travelers who want the money they’re spending to make a difference.“ (Rooms start at about Cdn. $188, about $153 U.S., in summer.)

Skwachays (pronounced “skwatch-eyes” and referring to the spring waters that once covered the area) is a hotel you can’t miss. A 40-foot-tall totem pole arises from its rooftop over the surrounding gritty Downtown Eastside area.

Gentrification is coming to the edges of the Downtown Eastside and the adjacent Chinatown, and Skwachays sits on a transitional line on West Pender Street. Stroll a block south and you’ll run into trendy shops and the hipster restaurant Chambar, dishing up Belgian beers, mussels and frites.

Go north from the hotel a block and you’re in the heart of the rundown Downtown Eastside along Hastings Street, a place of SRO hotels, tough bars and street-drug deals. It’s been a Skid Road community for generations where those living on the edge, including many First Nations people, end up.

Skwachays offers a way out, providing the housing and an art workspace for First Nations people. At a gallery on its ground floor, beyond the tiny check-in desk, First Nations artwork is sold.

Skwachays serves breakfast and lunch — including First Nations-inspired salmon, bison and bannock dishes — in a small room at a traditionally decorated feast table. (For a more varied aboriginal menu, including at dinner, head to Salmon ‘n Bannock, a First Nations-run bistro about a 15-minute drive from Skwachays.)

 

At Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery, artist Beau Dick sits by part of the exhibit “The Box of Treasures: Gifts of the Supernatural” that includes his artwork. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
At Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery, artist Beau Dick sits by part of the exhibit “The Box of Treasures: Gifts of the Supernatural” that includes his artwork. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

First Nations art in Vancouver

Art is fundamental to the past and present First Nations daily life and spirituality, including among the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian peoples of coastal B.C., from elaborately decorated longhouses and canoes to ceremonial masks and finely worked jewelry. Visitors to Vancouver can see First Nations artwork at galleries and a major museum in Vancouver.

Among them:

Carver Beau Dick discusses preserving and restoring the identity of First Nations people as his masks are featured at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. (Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

Bill Reid Gallery: This gallery/museum, about a 20-minute walk from Skwachays Lodge in the affluent heart of downtown Vancouver, is named after and showcases Bill Reid, an artist of Haida Nation and European descent who, in the mid 20th century, was key to starting a major First Nations art revival. Reid, who died in 1998, has become one of Canada’s most celebrated artists.

The 4,000-square-foot museum, run by a nonprofit group, includes 40 pieces of Reid’s silver and gold Haida-design jewelry; an intricate bronze frieze; multimedia on his life story; and one of Reid’s first works of art, an endearing tiny tea set made out of blackboard chalk that he created as a schoolboy.

Temporary exhibits by contemporary First Nations artists include “The Box of Treasures: Gifts from the Supernatural” with works by acclaimed Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly called Kwakiutl) First Nations carver and painter Beau Dick and other master carvers. The wood masks and regalia, on display until Sept. 27, were created for contemporary potlatches. (Traditional potlatch feasts, through which wealth was shared and prestige/power affirmed, were outlawed from 1885 to 1951 by Canadian authorities pushing assimilation.)

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of B.C. campus. Outside are traditional poles and a Haida house exhibit. The museum is about 25-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
The Museum of Anthropology at the University of B.C. campus. Outside are traditional poles and a Haida house exhibit. The museum is about 25-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Museum of Anthropology: This museum on the University of B.C. campus has an extensive collection of items from worldwide cultures, and is rich in works from B.C. First Nations villages.

Displays pay homage to the Musqueam, whose traditional territory included much of Vancouver and the scenic oceanside bluff on which the university sits. Dozens of poles from First Nations villages loom inside the glass-walled building and on the grounds. Masks used in First Nations ceremonial dances evoke spiritual creatures.

A signature work at the Museum of Anthropology is  “Raven and the First Men,” a wood sculpture by Bill Reid based on a Haida creation story.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A signature work at the Museum of Anthropology is “Raven and the First Men,” a wood sculpture by Bill Reid based on a Haida creation story. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

The museum’s signature work is the sculpture “Raven and the First Men” by Bill Reid, based on the Haida creation story of the first humans emerging from a giant clam shell, helped out by a raven. The sculpture, carved from a massive block of yellow cedar, is sited dramatically in its own room.

(Commercial galleries in Vancouver also show collector-quality First Nations artwork, including the upscale Eagle Spirit Gallery on Granville Island. Or if you’re traveling through Vancouver International Airport, Bill Reid’s stunning 20-foot-long bronze sculpture “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe” is displayed (before airport security) in the International/U.S. terminal.

To Whistler for First Nations culture

Take the spectacular, 1.5-hour drive from Vancouver to Whistler, amid craggy peaks with the highway hanging over a fjord, and learn about First Nations culture along the way.

At roadside pullouts along the “Sea to Sky” highway, five kiosks, with roofs shaped like traditional conical First Nations hats, have descriptions of the life, land and myths of the local Squamish and Lil’wat peoples. (And note the highway road signs in English plus the Squamish and Lil’wat languages.)

In Whistler, weave between the resort’s upscale hotels to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. The dramatic wood and glass building houses exhibits on the history and modern life of the two First Nations whose traditional territories stretched through this part of the province. See historic photos, traditional regalia, artwork and join in traditional craft-making or dances.

Hungry? The museum’s Thunderbird Cafe offers First Nations-inspired meals, including salmon chowder, venison chili and more.

Go far north to Haida Gwaii

You’ll need much more time to reach and visit Haida Gwaii, a cluster of more than 200 rain-bathed islands off the northern B.C. coast. (On a really clear day, you can see Alaska from its northern, and most developed, Graham Island.)

Once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, the name was formally changed in 2010 to Haida Gwaii, meaning “Islands of the People,” to reflect the enduring presence of the Haida Nation in the remote islands.

Some of B.C.’s most skilled First Nations artists and aboriginal-rights strategists are of Haida heritage. And the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay, a museum/cultural center that opened in 2007, showcases and helps perpetuate Haida culture.

Designed to represent an oceanside Haida village that once stood here, it’s a 50,000- square-foot complex with dramatic, specially carved poles plus museum exhibits on Haida life, past and present; a carving shed; performance space; cafe and more.

The remains of Haida villages dot the islands, nestled amid ancient cedar and Sitka spruce forests. There are no roads on most of the islands, which are protected in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

Boat tours are the way to see the wild side and adventure-cruise companies offer multiday, small-boat cruises, including to SGang Gwaay Llnagaay at the southwest end of Haida Gwaii, with its evocative remains of carved mortuary poles and longhouses. Also known as Ninstints, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fly from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii. Or drive far north to Prince Rupert and take BC Ferries. Or ferry-hop by taking BC Ferries from northern Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, a ruggedly beautiful daylong cruise along the B.C. coast, then a seven-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii.

 

Two Haida houses were reconstructed on the Museum of Anthropology grounds. They show the traditional Haida post and beam architecture. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Two Haida houses were reconstructed on the Museum of Anthropology grounds. They show the traditional Haida post and beam architecture. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Seeing village life off the beaten track

On a tiny island off the coast of northeast Vancouver Island, a museum in the village of Alert Bay celebrates the potlatch tradition. The U’mista Cultural Centre showcases masks and regalia of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, including some confiscated by Canadian authorities in the early 1900s (after potlatches were banned).

Some masks and other artifacts ended up in museums and private collections around the world; some of those have been repatriated in recent years and are displayed in Alert Bay. The museum also hosts public dance performances in summer, and potlatches by invitation only.

Alert Bay is home to about 1,300 people, First Nations and non-First Nations, with fishing and small-scale tourism its mainstays. In an island cemetery, weathered memorial poles stand sentinel.

Alert Bay is reached by BC Ferries from Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island. Sea Wolf Adventures, also based out of Port McNeill, is a small First Nations-owned company offering nature and cultural tours, including of Alert Bay, and water-taxi service.

If you go

First Nations hotels, museums and more

Lodging

— Skwachays Lodge, Vancouver. skwachays.com.

— NK’MIP Resort, Osoyoos, nkmip.com

— Wya Point Resort, Ucluelet, wyapoint.com

— Quaaout Lodge, Chase, quaaoutlodge.com/

Cultural centers, museums

— Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art: billreidgallery.ca

— Museum of Anthropology at UBC: moa.ubc.ca

— Squamish-Lil’Wat Cultural Centre: slcc.ca/

— Haida Heritage Centre, Haida Gwaii: haidaheritagecentre.com

— ‘Ksan Historical Village, Hazelton, ksan.org

— U’mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, umista.org

More information

— The Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (also called Aboriginal Tourism BC) has a comprehensive website, packed with information for visitors: aboriginalbc.com

— Destination B.C., the provincial tourism office, also has extensive information on First Nations tourism: bit.ly/1mikLlI

Heading much farther north in the B.C. mainland, the reconstructed First Nations village of ‘Ksan shows what traditional life was like among the Gitxsan people. Tours of ‘Ksan Historical Village take visitors past towering poles and into longhouses, decorated with the red and black geometric designs of traditional Northwest coast style.

There’s also a small museum with artifacts of daily life, from bentwood boxes to fishing and hunting gear and ceremonial masks. For those driving (including on the long haul to Alaska), ‘Ksan is near Hazelton, about three hours east of Prince Rupert.

With tourism comes jobs, and B.C. First Nations increasingly are opening resort hotels amid B.C.’s magnificent scenery. It lets them showcase their culture and provide jobs and training for their people, often working with hotel-management companies. Among the First Nations resorts:

NK’MIP Resort.: In the dry Okanagan of south-central B.C., the NK’MIP Resort includes the luxury Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort, a destination hotel on the shore of Osoyoos Lake. It’s studded with pools, outdoor dining and a spa, and includes rolling vineyards and a highly-regarded winery. There’s also a campground with 400 RV sites, yurts and cabins, all controlled by the entrepreneurial Osoyoos, and located just a few miles north of the U.S.-Canada border. (The Osoyoos also run the NK’MIP Desert Cultural Centre with exhibits, cultural talks and nature walks.)

Wya Point Resort: On a smaller, more ecotourist scale, Wya Point Resort on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island sits by a secluded Pacific beach amid 600 acres of old-growth forest. Developed by the Ucluelet First Nation, the luxurious suites have Pacific views. There also are yurts, a campground and surf shop, with easy access to the surfing and walking beaches of nearby Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. It’s near Ucluelet, a former logging and fishing village now turned to tourism, 25 miles south of Tofino.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Quaaout Lodge: In the heart of central B.C. near Chase, the Quaaout Lodge offers comfortable rooms, a spa and golf course. It’s run by, and the pride of, the Little Shuswap Indian Band, and is often used by travelers driving the nearby Trans-Canada Highway,

Quaaout Lodge becomes a coveted destination some autumns when a huge run of spawning sockeye salmon returns to the nearby Adams River. Every fourth “dominant” year, several million red-hued sockeye can pack the river, an astonishing migration to see and one that’s celebrated in the Salute to the Sockeye festival. This year is a “subdominant year” with perhaps 100,000 sockeye in October.

The next dominant sockeye-migration year is 2018, so plan ahead. The sockeye and the Little Shuswap people will be there, as they’ve been for countless generations.