Learn about Whistler’s Indigenous Culture

Whistler is one of the most popular ski resorts in Canada and is known worldwide. That being said, there is more to Whistler than meets the eye. The area has a rich Indigenous history that goes back more than 1000 years. 

From the Lil’wat Nation (Líl̓wat7ul) of the north to the Squamish Nation (Sk̲wxwú7mesh Úxwumixw) to the south, the Indigenous people have made this part of Canada what it is today. And we must respect the cultures that came before us and strive to keep the heritage alive. 

One of the best opportunities we have to ensure Whistler’s Indigenous culture lives on is through education. So let’s take a look at some of the things you may not know about the spiritual and cultural practices of the Indigenous peoples of the area.

Who Are Whistler’s Indigenous People?

whistler's indigenous community

photo cred: SLCC (https://slcc.ca/)

Europeans didn’t come to British Columbia until 1791, and it wasn’t until the 1860s that the British surveyed the area for the first time. At the start, they would call Whistler the “London Mountain,” mainly due to the fog that engulfed the area. It was later changed to Whistler due to the call of the marmots in the area.

At that time, Whistler had two native cultures: the Squamish aboriginal folk that lived around the coast and the Lil’wat aboriginal people living in the mountain area. Whistler was the borderline between the two cultures.

Both cultures had a vibrant heritage in terms of music, dancing, drumming, and intricate artwork. They also had quite some distinct methods for fishing, hunting, preserving their food and making medicine from plants on the land. 

The Connection to the Land

Whistler’s Indigenous people had, and still have, a deep connection to the land. They saw everything as one and believed that all creations were connected, from plants and animals to people. They saw each other as the caretakers of the land, which becomes quite apparent when you start looking through their culture. They did not claim ownership but rather saw themselves as simple stewards. 

Their history is deeply connected to lakes, rivers, and mountains. Their traditions were also tied to the earth, trying to obtain harmony and balance while avoiding causing further distress. They were careful with the resources and population to prevent depletion. You can find lots of cultural exhibits at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, where you can see totem poles, canoes, regalia, and other exhibits showcasing the deep connection they had with the environment.

whistler's indigenous storytelling culture

photo cred: SLCC (https://slcc.ca/)

The Role of Storytellers

Storytellers were the historians of Whistlers’ Indigenous community. Both the Lil’wat and Squamish nations had their own stories to tell based on important events – stories that would eventually be passed down from generation to generation. Aside from true stories, they also had several legends and myths so that they could teach values and morals to their young ones. 

In Whistler, storytellers were chosen and trained by the people of the community. While both Lil’wat and Squamish nations had their own ways of telling stories, they all agreed on something common: repetition was key.

Sadly, an epidemic of smallpox and the flu devastated both communities, causing many of the stories to be lost. Moreover, between 1881 and 1949, many children were taken from their own homes and moved to residential schools. Because of this, even more stories were lost, and of those that survived, many were changed. 

Luckily, the most important stories of the communities have survived and, to this day, are still passed down from generation to generation and from one visitor to another. And we need to keep that going!  

The Weaving Tradition

The Indigenous Whistler communities were famous for their weaving skills and being able to create a variety of intricate blankets and baskets. To this day, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre still has some carved spindle whorls decorating the entrance.

The Indigenous people would often carve animal images into their creations when weaving. It was believed that the characteristics of these animals would enter the woven item, protecting the weaver with their spirit. They would use spindle whorls to spin yarn from various sources, such as the inner cedar bark and the hairs of the Salish Woolly Dog (now extinct). The wool of the mountain goat was also prized and valuable due to its scarcity.

Basketry and crafts like weaving were primarily undertaken by Indigenous women in the region. Their modern-day ancestors have revived these skills, bringing them into the present time. Dedicated weavers showed incredible skill, which remained super valuable over the centuries.

whistler's indigenous animal culture

Use of Animal Symbolism

Looking through Coastal Salish carvings, you can see a tremendous amount of animal symbolism which was very important in the Lil’wat Indigenous community. The animal symbolism can be seen carved on various items such as spindle whorls, paddles, masks, or totem poles. And each of those carvings has a specific meaning to it. Some were to protect people, while others protected people’s homes. And carvings in oars would protect transportation in canoes. 

The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Center has many artifacts featuring animals such as the raven, the bear, the frog, the beaver, the killer whale, and the eagle. These animal symbols were widespread throughout both Indigenous Whistler communities and can be found in many old stories. 

The thunderbird symbol was one very cherished by both communities, as it symbolized power, strength, and protection. The Indigenous people were highly spiritual, and among spirits, the thunderbird was seen as the most powerful one. It would open his head up as if it were a mask and remove his feathers as if they were a simple blanket. Under his wings, he would have lighting snakes, which the thunderbird would use as a weapon or a tool.

To the Squamish people, Black Tusk Peak was also known as the thunderbird – or more precisely, the “landing place of the thunderbird,” as it is translated from their native language. The Black colouring and the mountain’s jagged shape are said to be the result of the thunderbird’s lightning. 

Where Can You Learn More about Whistler’s Indigenous culture?

Most of the local people of the Whistler/Squamish area are committed to preserving the heritage of the area and the Indigenous cultures. If you are visiting the area and want to learn more, you can pay a visit to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC). There you can see tons of items of cultural heritage, which will also offer you a visual representation of their culture.