28 May 2010

Vancouver Girl Thinks Aloud

A larger than life representation of a weaving spindle, at the Squamish Lil'wat Centre in Whistler.

It's easy to forget, here in Vancouver, that we have cultural riches at our fingertips that the world flocks to see. We grow up surrounded by totem poles and learn about potlatches at school but it never really seems to sink in. Perhaps because here in Canada our First Nations population suffers from so many social problems it becomes easy to overlook their current culture - we think of it as antiquated and archaeological, as arrowheads in museums rather than a changing and dynamic population of artists, athletes and regular folk.

Where I work, in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), it becomes all to easy to reflect only on the social woes of the First Nations population who are trapped there - caught in cycles of addiction learned by years in residential schools and foster care with no modeling of functional families to base their adulthood on. Day in and day out I am confronted with the desperation that hangs in the air above my beloved DTES.

That's not to say that it is all sadness - no, I am just as likely to have a smile smacked on my face as I witness the loving and caring atmosphere that the DTES community creates and nurtures. The fierce pride of the First Nations people living on the fringes of wealthy Vancouver is awe inspiring. The days though, the days when I see junkies overdosing or people in the crack dance, teenaged prostitutes with meth sores and old women begging for money - those days I am broken.

How can my country claim to be so advanced, and my city be heralded as having the highest standard of living in the world when this is what we have done to a race of people? Decimated their land, outlawed their language and customs, forcibly sterilized them until 30 years ago - this country is a monster, not a saint. And despite current good intentions, the statistics speak for themselves. How do I reconcile this with my patriotism?


Xstina is a cage, with a cannibalistic wilderness wildwoman looking on, part of a Squamish myth

I find it ironic that the first thing that North American travelers rush to see when visiting Asia are the "tribal" villages where you can purchase handicrafts, view carvings and artifacts and take pictures with the locals when we have such amazing examples of such in our own backyard. Again, for some reason we ignore the First Nations culture that permeates this land.

For a tourism challenge offered to museum workers in Vancouver I was given the opportunity to visit dozens of amazing museums and cultural centres, earning stamps toward an annual pass as I went. The final centre on my list? The Squamish Lil'wat Centre in Whistler. Xstina and I headed up the mountain last weekend, excited to earn a stamp and wander Whistler village, its vacation atmosphere always making a day feel special.

Singing a welcome song that moved me to tears.

We were not expecting to be moved to tears by the dance, the film and the exhibits that we witnessed there. The centre has been designed in a way that allows the visitor to see the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations as growing and changing cultures, highlighting their current successes rather than their past archaeological value. The Squamish Nation is of particular relevance to me, as they are the people that once inhabited downtown Vancouver and the DTES and have over the years been forced into smaller and smaller Reserves.

We tried on the ceremonial garb, ate bannock and salmon stew and entered the longhouses, a sense of hushed, guilty awe between us. Should we, the third and fourth generation daughters of European immigrants, feel guilty? We tried not to, instead choosing to relish the amazing display in front of us.


Today, while I was guiding a historical walking tour through the DTES, a First Nations woman overheard me say the word "alcohol" while telling the story of rum running during Prohibition and mistakenly thought that I was referring to current affairs. She accused me, in front of my 30 tour participants, of calling "all Indians drunks" and that I was telling "White person's lies" to the tourists. I wanted to defend myself, to explain to her that I was not and that I, of all people, understood better.

But do I?

It's something I struggle with everyday. There is no easy answer.

Cultural misappropriation or respect? You decide. It's like those HSBC ads....

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