Efforts to bolster the Squamish Nation’s language and traditions have ignited a period of cultural renewal and continuity for Howe Sound’s Indigenous people. (Assessment is not appropriate due to the nature of the subject).
Author: Julie Gardner, Ph.D., Dovetail Consulting Group
Reviewers: Chief Bill Williams, Lead Negotiator, Aboriginal Rights & Title, Squamish Nation
Chief Ian Campbell, Cultural Liaison Ambassador & Negotiator, Squamish Nation
Chief Gibby Jacob, Executive Operating Officer, Squamish Nation
Councillor Chris Lewis, Squamish Nation
Banner Photo Credit: Gary Fiegehen
The people of the Squamish Nation are in a time of powerful cultural renewal and revitalization. Interest in and adherence to cultural traditions and practices, including learning Skwxwú7mesh Snichim (the Squamish language), is growing strongly. This follows a period when cultural continuity was somewhat interrupted by external forces. Thus, while Skwxwú7mesh Snichim is critically endangered, the language is still a vital part of the Squamish culture.
The Skwxwú7mesh Snichim word for Squamish people, also the word for villages and community, is Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw. The Squamish Nation consists of 23 villages from the Greater Vancouver area and Gibson’s landing to the Squamish River watershed, though only 0.423 percent of the traditional territory was allotted to the Nation under the Indian Act, in scattered parcels of land. Skwxwú7mesh Snichim traces ancient connections to the territory through place names.
Ceremonial events of the Squamish people are customarily conducted in the Longhouse. The Longhouse is a sacred place that plays a significant role in the culture of the Coast Salish people. At one point in history, the Squamish Nation proudly possessed more than twenty Longhouses from the Upper Squamish Valley to False Creek and Burrard Inlet. Longhouse-like buildings, such as Totem Hall in the Squamish valley, are still used for ceremonies of celebration, witnessing and healing.
Art and sport are integral to the rich cultural tradition of the Squamish people. Canoe pulling, including racing, reflects the strong connection to the marine part of the territory, and paddling is a crucial part of the Nation’s history and culture. However, over the past 30 years, the popularity of canoe racing has dropped. At the same time ocean journey canoeing has been revived internationally. Several tribal journeys have been undertaken by canoe over the last few years.
Why is it important?
The wealth of the Squamish people lies in their culture, in the stories connected with their lands. As Chief Ian Campbell stated during discussions leading up to Xay Temíxw (Sacred Land land use plan): “This is what keeps us together as a people. We’re not going to be packing up and moving. This land is where we come from. This is where our songs come from. This is where our power is. It’s on the land. When you go on the land, that’s when your dreams get strong, your feelings get strong.” These deep values apply as strongly to the waters of Howe Sound as to the watersheds. Every little creek in the Sound has a Skwxwú7mesh Snichim name.
General values and uses of the Squamish traditional territory that community members care deeply about include:
- secluded places for traditional cultural practices (e.g., storing regalia, vision quests);
- wildlife and wildlife habitat;
- fish for fishing, and healthy rivers and streams;
- clean air, and clean water for drinking, for the ecosystem and for ritual bathing;
- resources from which Squamish members can earn a living; and,
- places to heal, recover and re-connect with the land.
The Howe Sound ecosystem is critical to the wellbeing of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw. Integral to Squamish culture is the consumption of food harvested from Howe Sound, and in modern times seafood has been essential to supplementing store-bought food, especially for the elders. In the past, Squamish fishers harvested herring, rockfish, salmon, crab and many other species. Cod could be speared as they would get stuck in pond traps as the tide receded. Elders recall that killer whales used to go up the west side of Howe Sound to calve and rub on the rocks. Canoe travel, village to village, from areas around Vancouver to the Squamish River and between, was commonplace.
Songs and Ceremonies
“The ceremonies of the Squamish people are integral to community life, involving young and old, men and women, people from all walks of life. Songs, stories, dancing and regalia are still featured in most ceremonies even today, despite the fact that the design and materials of the regalia might have changed somewhat. The spirit of the regalia remains the same, to connect to Ancestors by paying respect to earthly things such as animals and birds, as well as the supernatural.”
– reproduced with permission from “Where Rivers, Mountains and People Meet,” Squamish Líl’wat Cultural Centre.
What is the current status?
The Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw have a profound connection to Howe Sound. Squamish people learned everything about their surroundings from their parents and extended family prior to contact. This provided a continuity of traditional knowledge and uses of the resources within their homelands and waters. However, intensive use of Howe Sound by Squamish members has skipped a couple of generations due to a number of tragic circumstances, primarily residential schools and industrial pollution:
- In a meeting in early 2016, Squamish Nation elders commented that “We have a long history of not being home.” Children were taken away to residential schools for eight years or so, some starting as early as age 5. They never had an opportunity to learn cultural ways such as canoeing. “Grandma and Great Grandmother would take me to the river to bathe and harvest and would show me what and how to gather. Once residential schools came along, we could not go to the land and gather.” Communities were broken up as some of those taken away moved and settled elsewhere, and those returning from school didn’t know each other.
- Squamish members were advised by their elders to stop fishing when pollution from Britannia Mine became a threat. That pollution, as well as pollution from the Woodfibre pulp mill, lasted for decades. A comment in the input to Xay Temíxw was “My father used to say ‘No longer can we go up and even fish for the oolichans.’” More recently, an elder related that “Before [the pollution] you could put branches in the water and get herring eggs to eat.”
- The tradition of ritual bathing in streams has been compromised by privacy issues. As a Squamish member put it during input to Xay Temíxw: “We’ll be seen if we don’t go really early to bathe.”
- Canoeing has become more difficult and hazardous as larger boats and ships have become more numerous in the Sound. This is due to the wakes of the vessels and the sheer volume of traffic.
- First Nations were pushed out of the prawn fishing industry in the 1960s. First Nations youth now re-entering the fishery have a learning curve due to this period of lack of access to the resource.
Despite the interruption of Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw intensive use of Howe Sound, harvest of resources from Squamish territories is still an important part of the contemporary and ongoing activities of the Nation, providing resources for food, medicine, ceremonial and spiritual uses as well as other benefits.
What can you do?
- Study the Nation’s stories and cultural history – see below for some resources.
- Visit the Squamish Líl’wat Cultural Centre: website. The Centre manages cherished collections of the Squamish Nation and has many ambassadors from the Nation who work there and provide a daily tour of the facilities.
- Keep an eye open for events you can attend, like art shows or Powwows – try the Squamish Nation Facebook page.
- Engage with the Squamish Nation on planning for Howe Sound.
The Squamish Nation will conduct its Howe Sound planning process and consult with other governments as appropriate. Cooperation with non-government interests is also appropriate in some aspects of planning, recognizing that concerns of Howe Sound communities beyond the Squamish Nation overlap with those of Squamish Nation members. Relationship-building between the Squamish Nation, governments and non-government organizations in connection with Howe Sound is well underway, thanks in part to the Howe Sound Community Forum (HSCF). Established in 2002, eleven parties including regional districts, municipalities and the Squamish First Nation signed a document called “Howe Sound Community Forum Principles for Cooperation.” The Forum meets regularly to share information and discuss current issues.
People from outside the Squamish Nation can support cultural continuity for the Squamish Nation by continuing to cultivate the cooperative approach described above while appreciating the fundamental importance of spiritual and cultural values, and by preventing these priorities from being overwhelmed by scientific and economic worldviews.