Jun 8, 2023

Eat, Stay, Explore: Delve into First Nations culture in Vancouver, B.C.


Skwachàys Lodge with totem pole on the roof 

Book a stay in Vancouver B.C.'s Skwachàys Lodge, and help support a program that provides rooms and studio space for indigenous painters, photographers, potters and film makers.

Take a nature walk through Stanley Park with a First Nations guide, and discover how aboriginal villagers lived off the land, using skunk cabbage leaves like waxed paper and horsetails as toothbrushes. 

Snag a table at Salmon n' Bannock bistro, and sample bison pot roast and candied salmon while sipping "Dreamcatcher" wine made by Nk’Mip Cellars, the first indigenous-owned winery in North America.   

British Columbia is home to 204 First Nations communities. Before British settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, the city of Vancouver was the traditional territory of three Coast Salish nations known as the Squamish, Tsleil-waututh and Musqueam peoples as well as others.

Thanks to a robust and active urban indigenous population (third largest of of any Canadian city), travelers have many opportunities to learn first-hand about their cultural traditions.

Where to stay

Guests who overnight at the Skwachàys Lodge in downtown Vancouver's help support an artists-in-residence program that provides rooms in the hotel and studio space for 24 indigenous artists. Much of their work is for sale in a fair trade lobby gallery where jewelry, pottery, cards, weavings etc. feature their pictures and bios.

Fair trade gallery at Skwachàys Lodge

Paintings, carvings and sculptures by well-known indigenous artists decorate the rooms and public spaces. Bannock, the traditional native fried bread, is on the breakfast table.

"When you stay here, you're enveloped in indigenous art, and it tells a story about who we are," says Caroline Phelps who manages the 18-room boutique inn for the B.C. Indigenous Housing Society.

Paintings by artist-in-residence Mike Alexander

The hotel opened in 2012 as a unique indigenous social enterprise in a 120-year-old building that was the former Pender Hotel in downtown Vancouver's eastside near the tourist area of Gastown.

"When a guest spends their overnight travel dollars at the Skwachàys Lodge there is a social impact – people are housed," the hotel's website explains. "When a guest, a member of the community or a company purchases authentic Indigenous art at the Fair Trade Gallery, there is a social impact – a simple purchase fights cultural misappropriation and ensures that Indigenous artists are paid fairly for their work." 

For Mike Alexander, 48, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, landing a residency meant he had the work space for the first time to transition from making cards and smaller works to bold colorful wall-sized paintings.

Mike Alexander burns herbs for a smudge ceremony at the Skwachàys Lodge 

"It totally changed by artistic practice," he says. Alexander "gives back" to hotel guests by leading traditional "smudge" or cleansing ceremonies in an upper-floor room decorated with a blue sky mural.

Where to eat 

Growing up in Vancouver, Inez Cook,  a member of the Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola, B.C., says she always knew she would own a restaurant.

A career as a flight attendant came first, then, in 2010, she opened Salmon n' Bannock, a 30-seat bistro in West Vancouver, designed to showcase First Nations people and food.

Indigenous people invented farm- to- table cuisine, she points out, since they foraged, grew and cooked everything they ate. 

"I wanted to create a place where I could take people on a journey," she says. 

Homemade Bella Coola soda at Salmon n' Bannock

Earning her accolades on a Time magazine list of the "Worlds Greatest Places 2023 " is a menu that includes a candied salmon with a maple drizzle; a bison pot roast; and a mousse made with smoked and dried bison mixed with cream cheese and sage infused blueberries.  

An indigenous brewery in Langley, B.C. supplies the beer. Wine comes from Nk’Mip Cellars in Osoyoos, B.C. There's a homemade Bella Coola non-alcoholic soda with hibiscus, rose hips, apples and oranges, garnished with blueberries. The bannock, a traditional native unleavened bread, is baked rather than fried, and served with cedar jelly. 

Visitors passing through Vancouver International Airport can treat themselves to an elk burger at Salmon n' Bannock On the Fly which Cook opened last February.

What to explore

Due to reopen late this year or early next after seismic upgrades is the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology which houses one of the world's largest collections of First Nations art, hunting tools, masks and other artifacts. 

In the mean time, for an overview of contemporary native art, visit the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver. On display are Reid's gold and silver jewelry and a totem pole carved by James Hart of Haida Gwaii. 

Reid, who died in 1998, was an acclaimed master goldsmith, carver, sculptor, writer, broadcaster, mentor and community activist. Born in Victoria, B.C. to a Haida mother and an American father with Scottish German roots, he began exploring his Haida roots at the age of 23

Current special exhibits include "Bright Futures," on through Jan. 14, 2023. The exhibit brings together Reid's art with new works by contemporary emerging and established Indigenous artists of the Northwest Coast. 

Everyone visits Vancouver's Stanley Park, but few realize that indigenous people made their homes here thousands of years before British Columbia was colonized. The park remained home to indigenous villagers until they were moved out, and the area was turned into Vancouver's first park when the city incorporated in 1886.

Guide Shae Trotter explains all the ways native villagers use the skunk cabbage when they lived in Stanley Park

"It's the story of plants and trees and how we used them," says Shae Trottier, a member of the Tia-o-qui-aht Nations of Tofino who leads 1.5 mile "Talking Trees" nature walks for Talaysay Tours, an aboriginal eco-tour company that organizes walks and other outdoor activities focused on indigenous culture. 

As groups walk through the park and around Beaver Lake, Trottier explains how large skunk cabbage leaves were used in pit cooking to impart a peppery flavor and as modern-day waxed paper in which to wrap fish.

The Western Red Cedar was considered the "tree of life," because its leaves could be eaten, and the wood could be used for building canoes, roofs and storage boxes. The Douglas Fir was used for firewood and sending smoke signals "like a traditional cell phone." 

The way to harvest huckleberries, she tells school groups, is to pick them one at a time, instead of yanking off a branch "no more than you'd pull at your grandmother's arm.

"We think of plants and animals as our relatives," she says, "so we treat them the same way."

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