Expanded Spirit Within Festival celebrates the diversity of First Nations culture

Second annual festival features four days of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal music, dance, crafts, workshops and more

It's safe to say that many people hold certain misconceptions about First Nations culture in Canada.

It's something Squamish Nation artist James Harry is readily aware of, and he sees his live carving demonstrations as an educational tool to raise the public's awareness of the richness of the region's Aboriginal cultural traditions.

"In my experience, especially in working in public in Whistler before, what I noticed was there are a lot of travelers who really have no idea about First Nations culture around Vancouver, all the way up along the coast," he said. "People traveling just hear the Hollywood stories of an Indian in headdress or (carrying) a tomahawk, and they don't realize there's a lot more diversity to it. I really enjoy being able to educate people in a good way by doing art and dispelling some of the myths that Hollywood's generated over the last century."

Harry, the son of master carver and Order of British Columbia recipient Xwalactun, will be one of dozens of Aboriginal artists, dancers, musicians and singers performing at the second Spirit Within Festival, an annual celebration of First Nations culture hosted by Whistler's Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC).

After the success of the inaugural event last year, SLCC staff decided to expand the festival to four days "to make that much more impact and that much more visibility overall," said the centre's guest services coordinator, Josh Anderson.

Running next Thursday (Sept. 26) until Sunday (Sept. 29), the expanded schedule includes a mix of cultural and educational programming that's the norm for the SLCC, winners of the 2013 Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.'s Cultural Centre of the Year Award.

Highlights of the festival's first day include a grant-writing workshop hosted by the First Peoples Cultural Council and a drum-making workshop.

While Anderson recognized the entertainment value of the festival's diverse programming, which will include traditional and contemporary dance, drum circles, a barbecue, storytelling, music and more, he hopes attendees will also walk away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the cultural heritage of the region's First Nations' people.

"We're hoping attendees come away with a lot more knowledge, not just coming to watch certain performances, but when they do take place we'll do explanations to the songs and why certain things take place," he said. "That's what it comes down to, creating that meaningful and positive experience."

Currently enrolled at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, the 23-year-old Harris sees it as his responsibility to at once honour the history and practices of Squamish artists before him, while still pushing the form forward into the future.

"I still respect what it is my ancestors have created with totem poles, canoes, longhouses and all these different art forms, and I still respect and understand the protocol behind all these things, but I think in order to push what we know about ourselves, especially how we've adapted as a culture into modern society, we have to also think about how we make our art so we don't always do the same traditional artwork, and look into new ways of creating things," said Harris, who will be carving a bear and eagle totem at a live demonstration on Friday (Sept. 27).

Other highlights from the day's programming include a collection of First Nations short films from across Canada, a workshop on Lil'wat principles of learning by Dr. Lorna Williams and the Sunset Celebration featuring food and musical performances by Mount Currie roots band Kalan Wi, among others.

Saturday's busy schedule includes a drum circle at Olympic Plaza, an artists' market at the SLCC's Istken Hall, and the Raven Celebration featuring performances by traditional Salish drum and dance groups.

Another performer at Spirit Within that is striking a balance between the contemporary and the traditional is Vancouver dancer Michelle Olson, artistic director at Raven Spirit Dance Society, whose goal is "to create, support and develop contemporary dance work that is rooted in Aboriginal indigenous worldview," she said.

Olson will be performing a dance she calls Frost Exploding Trees Moon on Sunday at the SLCC's Great Hall. The piece follows an Aboriginal woman as she wanders into the woods on her trapline.

"It's a contemporary dance piece looking at indigenous people in our community who are connected to the land," said Olson. "When we were working on it, we thought of our aunties and our grandmothers and people we knew from our own community who had a really strong relationship with the land."

Rounding out the final day of the fest will be artists demonstrations, traditional storytelling and a performance by the Lil'wat Nation's Iswalh Dancers.

For a full list of events and to purchase tickets, visit www.slcc.ca.

© Copyright Whistler Question