Before there was a bustling outdoor tourist destination, acclaimed gondola or even a scenic mountain highway, the entire Sea to Sky Region was the traditional territory and home for indigenous coast Salish villages and settlements.
Since before recorded history, the Aboriginal people hunted, fished, held sacred ceremonies and acted as stewards, honouring the lands of their ancestors for untold generations. Their complex history can be traced through ancient connections within their shared language, through terms for place names and ceremony among the Salmon Peoples of the cedar longhouse.
On July 23, 1923 through the “Prayer of Amalgamation,” the modern era of the Squamish Nation began, when 16 chiefs signed an agreement to form one Nation, with each chief having a seat at the council table. After decades, the hereditary system for the band council changed into an elected council, which still symbolically has 16 seats.
The Skwxwú7mesh stelmexw (or Squamish People) continue to live in the area now known as British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, where their rich culture has continued to thrive and influence the region’s politics, and they’ve become leaders in the field of First Nations economic development. "Today, there are approximately 4,000 members of our Nation," says Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief and member of the band's council. "We are spread out in communities from Squamish to North Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, be we are part of a larger language family called the Coast Salish, and our language can be found throughout Oregon and Washington states and over to Vancouver Island."
That language can also be seen on the road signs situated along the Sea to Sky Highway, giving traditional Squamish names alongside the more recognizable and modern monikers of locations and towns.
“We are always working to create a stronger visible presence,” says Campbell. “And that includes the signage along the Sea to Sky in our native Squamish language. It’s one more step towards inspiring people to learn more about the history of the Squamish Nation, our lands and our mythology.”
He says the Squamish area was a prime location to experience that Aboriginal mythology.
“Everyone knows the Stawamus Chief,” he says. “But for the Squamish Nation that is a longhouse, filled with all the animals. And we also have a flood story in our mythology, just like many others, but for us, it was the peak of Mt. Garibaldi that was our safe haven. There are stories written throughout the land.”
The Squamish Nation’s own story continues to be written as well, and it has been developing a variety of sources of revenue from taxation, leases and Squamish-owned businesses. A few examples of tenants on Squamish Nation lands are the Park Royal Shopping Centre and the International Plaza. There are also plans to develop various parcels of lands, including proposed developments at Seymour, Capilano, Kitsilano, Chekwelp and Stawamus, with proceeds going to support ongoing programs and services for Squamish Nation membership, as well as acquire new lands, provide infrastructure, and provide finance options for member housing.
But you don’t have to be a member of the Nation to experience and appreciate their rich and time-honoured culture, according to Campbell.
“There are many places to learn about our culture, including Totem Hall in Squamish, where we often hold events like powwows,” he says. “Visitors can also travel up to Whistler and go to the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre, which is a great place to find out more about the area’s Aboriginal history.”
Campbell says they were also exploring the online realm and smartphone app technology as a way to further inspire curiosity about Squamish Nation tradition and history, and usher ancient ways into a modern world.
For more information on the Squamish Nation, go to www.squamish.net.