Seeing Vancouver through Aboriginal eyes
2016-05-25 | Source: San Francisco Chronicle | By: Margo Pfeiff
“Can you handle two more rocks?” Old Hands asks. Sitting cross-legged in the dirt in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, I’m pleasantly hypnotized by the rhythm of a drumbeat.
“Bring them on,” I tell the medicine man.
When they’re delivered, cradled on deer antlers, Old Hands ladles water over them, sending up clouds of steam. It’s pitch black inside the traditional sweat lodge except for the glowing stones. We sweat, talk and sweat some more.
By the time I emerge from the domed willow tent frame draped with thick blankets, I feel surprisingly lighter and revitalized, but it’s a shock to look around and remember that we’re on the sixth-floor rooftop patio of a boutique hotel in the middle of downtown Vancouver.
In an effort to protect their traditions, Canada’s First Nations people largely stayed out of tourism in the past, but in recent years that’s been changing. Pride, confidence and a new generation with a desire to share their culture and way of life have created a boom in aboriginal tourism, especially in British Columbia. According to the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, business grew by 10 percent in 2015 over the previous year, to $50 million.
Though still a small industry, it’s now possible to stay in an aboriginal hotel, dine on coastal peoples’ cuisine, tap into their ancient knowledge of the natural world, and experience and learn traditions from canoeing and art-making to drumming and sweat-purging. And that’s what I planned to explore over several days in Vancouver.
I started by checking into Skwachays Lodge, whose lobby doubles as the Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery. The chic little hotel opened in 2014 between the city’s historic Gastown and Chinatown neighborhoods and features a 40-foot totem pole on the roof. It’s run by the nonprofit Vancouver Native Housing Society, a social enterprise whose profits are funneled to the local aboriginal community, including the support of 24 artists in residence within the lodge.
Three floors of Skwachays have been transformed into a modern hotel with the help of six top hotel interior designers volunteering their services by teaming up with six aboriginal artists to create 18 unique rooms featuring original carvings, paintings and blankets.
On the rooftop patio is the sweat lodge as well as a Smudge Room, where guests can experience traditional purification rituals using sweet grass and sage.
“For years this building was a healing lodge for First Nations people from throughout the province who came to the city for medical treatments,” says general manager Maggie Edwards, “so we wanted to make those experiences accessible to guests interested in native culture.”
Later that morning, Candace Campo meets me at a trailhead amid Stanley Park’s towering rain forest. A member of the Sechelt First Nation, she leads Talking Trees Walks through the 1,000-acre city park.
We follow paths I’ve walked and jogged most of my life growing up in Vancouver, pointing out things I’ve never noticed and overlaying a historical map on my hometown that I never knew existed. She names native villages that once existed within the park — with archaeology going back 3,000 years — and talks about traditional canoe shuttles that once ferried people all around what is now Greater Vancouver.
“With many freshwater streams and abundant salmon, the site where Vancouver now stands contained many settlements,” she says, “and Stanley Park was so profoundly important for medicine, food and shelter that it was shared by three different tribes.”
Campo points out fiddleheads and salmonberries and explains how western hemlock is a source of vitamin C and alder bark is still used to soothe sore throats. “It was a free pharmacy.” She touches a red cedar, whose fibrous inner bark was worked into clothing fabric and whose logs supported local longhouses, at least one of them measuring 200 feet by 60 feet. “They held potlatches there for a thousand people or more.”
Today, at nearby Brockton Point, there is a grove of nine totem poles, a mortuary pole and sculptures representing various coastal tribes. You can even watch totem poles being carved at times in a permanent carving shed at the Granville Island Public Market.
Not far from downtown, one of the world’s finest displays of Northwest Coast First Nations art is housed at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. Set in a spectacular contemporary building reminiscent of a longhouse, it overlooks the ocean and mountains, a treasure house of totem poles, huge carved feast dishes, canoes and bent boxes naturally lit through a glass wall within the Great Hall.
I always make a pilgrimage to my favorite installment, the Raven and the First Men cedar sculpture by Bill Reid, a half-Haida jewelry maker/radio announcer who reconnected with his aboriginal roots in the 1950s and became vital in bringing British Columbia’s aboriginal art back to life.
Actually, a Reid work might be one of the first things you see after disembarking from a plane at Vancouver International Airport — the 20-foot long, green-colored Jade Canoe bronze sculpture filled with spiritual half-human, half-animal figures. It’s appeared on a stamp and Canadian $20 bills, and a copy stands at Canada’s Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Another much-loved Reid bronze is “Chief of the Undersea World” — a killer whale breaching outside the entrance to the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park.
The downtown Bill Reid Gallery showcases a permanent collection of Reid’s work as well as changing exhibitions of contemporary aboriginal art. From there I like to walk eastward toward Gastown, modern Vancouver’s birthplace, to prowl the cobblestone streets and visit several First Nations art shops: the Spirit Wrestler, Coastal Peoples Gallery and Hill’s Native Art.
On my last Gastown visit, there was a new First Nations addition to the neighborhood’s regentrification boom. The Capilano Teahouse and Botanical Soda Co. is a stylish little cafe with indigenous hipster decor that opened in February, run by a mother-daughter duo of Squamish Nation descent. Michelle Nahanee tapped into local elders’ age-old tea recipes, blending rooibos and black teas with traditional ingredients such as blackberry leaves, nettles, juniper and sage. Meanwhile, 19-year-old daughter Paisley — who’s been creating botanical sodas since she was 15 — uses a similar global approach to conjure up delicious sodas, including real root beer, wild cherry bark cream soda and a rose lemonade.
Capilano’s light lunch menu includes Salish Sea soup, phyllo stuffed with bison or wild rice and berries, and elk stew. They also took traditional bannock bread up a few notches by adding coconut oil and serving it with homemade rhubarb-bergamot jam.
Growing up in North Vancouver, I would sometimes head with my family to the Capilano Indian Reserve along the waterfront at the Lions Gate Bridge’s north end to buy fresh fruit and Indian candied salmon from roadside stands near the reserve’s longhouse. Or we would tuck into a mondo breakfast at the homey Tomahawk Restaurant near the reserve, a popular diner stuffed with First Nations artifacts collected since it opened in 1926.
Farther east, near the Second Narrows Bridge, is the Tsleil-Waututh (“SLAY-wah-tuth”) Nation reserve, where Dennis Thomas runs Takaya Tours. I step on board a traditional-style 26-foot oceangoing war canoe and, along with 10 others, use wooden, diamond-bladed paddles to make our way up scenic Indian Arm.
En route, our guide relates legends and stories and points out ancient village sites. A girl at the helm sings and drums as we try with limited success — but much laughter — to coordinate our paddle strokes.
Humor and memorable characters turn out to be some of the best parts of my three days in Vancouver, and one of the highlights sits opposite me on my last evening. Inez Cook, the lively co-owner of the Salmon n’ Bannock bistro and a member of the central-coastal Nuxalk Nation, is plying me with musk ox prosciutto and spicy game chorizo sausage beneath a suspended Haida canoe in a small fine-dining eatery decorated with aboriginal art on deep red walls.
“This is the only restaurant in Vancouver offering 100 percent First Nations food, and it’s staffed entirely by native people,” she says proudly.
She urges me to try salmon bathed in a maple syrup glaze, blueberry chutney on venison carpaccio and the most amazing crispy salmon skin chip, which magically bursts in your mouth. Dishes are paired with wines from Nk’Mip Cellars, a native-owned and operated winery.
The bistro opened in 2010 and sources only fresh and wild foods.
“Just like in pre-European days, there are no preservatives, additives, nothing is genetically modified or factory farm raised,” she says. When I note that the menu features mostly meat and fish dishes, Cook answers with a rollicking laugh. “Yeah, natives think vegetarians are just lousy hunters.”
By the time I leave the restaurant, it’s clear I’ve indulged far too much. And while Cook is pleased, I’m thinking I could really use another session in the sweat lodge.
Margo Pfeiff is a Montreal freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Skwachays Lodge: 31 West Pender St., Vancouver, (888) 998-0797 or (604) 687-3589, www.skwachays.com. Canada’s first aboriginal boutique hotel and gallery, with 18 unique First Nations art-themed rooms, between Gastown and Chinatown. Sweat lodge and Smudge Room rituals require bookings well in advance. From $120 double with continental breakfast.
Salmon n’ Bannock: 7-1128 West Broadway, Vancouver, (604) 568-8971, www.salmonandbannock.net. Creative fine-dining restaurant that puts a contemporary twist on First Nations ingredients. One of the signature dishes is a luscious wild salmon soup. Open for lunch and dinner. For two: from $50.
Capilano Tea House and Botanical Soda Co.: 221 Abbott St., Gastown, www.thecapilano.com. Small, chic, contemporary aboriginal teahouse and lunch cafe. From $25 for two.
WHAT TO DO
Talaysay Tours: (800) 605-4643 or (604) 628-8555, www.talaysay.com. Aboriginal kayak, wilderness and outdoor guided trips in Vancouver area. Talking Trees Walk in Stanley Park is an enlightening tour lasting 1½ to 2½ hours. Adults: $30.
Takaya Tours: (604) 904-7410, www.takayatours.com. Wide selection of cultural kayaking, motorboat, walking and traditional canoe tours with local guides from North Vancouver’s Tsleil-Waututh Nation from May through October. Two-hour canoe paddling tour from $50 per person.
Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art: 639 Hornby St., Vancouver, (604) 682-3455, www.billreidgallery.ca. Downtown First Nations art collection with rotating exhibitions of Northwest Coast art and frequent live cultural performances and lectures. Admission: $8.
UBC Museum of Anthropology: 6393 Northwest Marine Drive on the University of British Columbia campus, Vancouver, (604) 822-5950, www.moa.ubc.ca. One of the world’s finest displays of Northwest Coast First Nations art in a contemporary longhouse-style building with a mountain and sea view. Admission: $14.
Destination British Columbia: www.hellobc.com
Tourism Vancouver: www.tourismvancouver.com
Aboriginal B.C.: Online hub for aboriginal events, packages and things to do across the province. www.aboriginalbc.com