The Squamish culture is rich and resilient. We continue to practice our customs and traditions, which are strongly interconnected with our traditional territory. Together with our lands, our customs and traditions are the foundation of who we are as Skwxwú7mesh.
The Squamish Language
The Squamish People are the Indigenous Peoples who speak the Skwxwú7mesh Snichim (Squamish language). Today, the term “Squamish Nation” is often used to describe this group of Coast Salish people, however in the long ago there was no word for “nation” and the Squamish simply called themselves Skwxwú7mesh (pronounced Squ-HO-o-meesh) or “the Squamish People.” The Skwxwú7mesh Snichim, although critically endangered, is still a vital part of the Squamish culture.
Ceremonial events of the Squamish people are customarily conducted in the Longhouse. During pre-contact, certain Longhouses were utilized as community dwellings, and others were set aside for the exclusive use of the winter spiritual dances. The Longhouse is a sacred place that plays a significant role in the culture of the Coast Salish people.
In June Baker’s description of the Legacy of the Longhouse, she notes the following:
“In modern times, the main events held in the long house are the winter spiritual dances… An important part of the ritual of the longhouse is the witnessing ceremony. Whenever one is doing ‘work’ of any consequence and a spokesperson or ‘floor manager’ has been selected, the first order of events is to call witnesses. These people are required to take note of the work that is taking place and to speak about the work when it has been completed…”
“To do work in the Longhouse involves any one of a number of significant events, such as bestowing a traditional name, memorial rite for a deceased family member and apologizing for a mistake or mishap…other situations that require the calling of witnesses are the many rituals that accompany the sponsorship of a new dancer.”
“Longhouses are situated throughout the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Washington State and the Lower Fraser Valley. 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. Two of the larger Longhouses were located at what is now Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park and on the present Seymour Reserve.”
The Squamish Nation has a rich artistic tradition, and is home to many renowned artists in the areas of traditional arts such as carving (masks, canoes, welcome figures), painting, jewellery and weaving (wool and cedar), as well as more contemporary arts such as clothing design, ceramics, folk art and modern forms of music.
Xwalacktun (Rick Harry) is one of many well-known and highly skilled Squamish Nation artists. He was born and raised in Squamish, and educated at Emily Carr College of Art and Capilano College before embarking on a 30-year career as an internationally recognized artist and cultural ambassador. He works in wood, glass and steel and is best known for his remarkable wood carvings.
When discussing the Squamish Nation artistic styles, Xwalacktun noted that “when it comes to traditional art it is almost new to us because we lost it. We’re doing a Kwakwaka’wakw style, taught by Ellen Neal, who also taught several Coast Salish people.” Ellen Neel from Alert Bay (1916–1966) was a Kwakwaka’wakw artist woodcarver and is the first woman known to have professionally carved totem poles. The late Larry Joseph, who was also known for his totem poles was mentored by Gottfried Hunt. “That’s why we have that design now” noted Xwalacktun. “The style of art is more contemporary for our people now, but we are moving back to traditional style and combining it with contemporary style.” In 1990, Xwalacktun started making changes to the Coast Salish design after he learned the style from Charles Elliott. In his contemporary art, he uses different materials, such as metal. He noted “you will see a lot of large pieced made out of metal, which is cut with a water jet cut.”
Xwalacktun tells stories through his art pieces, including new and old stories. His intent is to leave behind history for the next generation through his art. “One day we will become ancestors and this is an example of true traditional art.” His art is constantly evolving and he blends it with contemporary art.
He indicated that “we never had a word for artwork. Artwork was used to help pass on messages and stories.” Early in his career he created artwork for the sake of it, just to try and sell it, but it did not have any meaning behind it. All the art pieces he does now have meaning. “When the art work comes to life, its gives a connection to the people; you start communicating it, rather than just reading about it, you read about it and the more you keep it to yourself. When you do something you have to share.”
His mother is Namgis and Squamish and was born in Alert Bay, and his father is Squamish who carried a hereditary name Pekultn. As he has blood from both sides, sometimes he ties both traditions together in one design because “that is who I am as a human being.”
In terms of sport, the Nation has a rich canoe history, as well as traditional games, soccer and lacrosse. More recently, the Nation is very proud to host and support the First Nations Snowboard Team.
Mike Billy, a member of the Squamish Nation, has been canoe pulling his entire life. Mike is struggling to keep Squamish canoe culture alive, because he believes paddling is a crucial part of the Nation’s history and culture. However, the popularity of canoe racing has dropped substantially in the last 30 years. When Mike first started in 1979, there were as many as thirty-two 11-man canoes competing. At races today, at the most there are ten 11-man canoes.
In the early 1900s, Mike’s grandfather was the go-to-guy for a canoe in Squamish. “He didn’t often paddle, because of his asthma and bronchitis, but he established himself as the Nation’s canoe carver.” He passed the skill on to his son Cedric Billy who taught his own sons (including Mike), as had been done since the sport began in the 1870s.
Regarding Mike’s father Cedric (who today is 76 years old), Mike noted “he was an avid paddler until he tore ligaments in his shoulder in his early 70s. He looks wistful when he recounts his paddling days.” Cedric added “I haven’t been to races in the last two years. I don’t know what’s going on now I’m not too young anymore, you know. I wish I could bring those days back though. I can dream. I can look at pictures.” He has not been to a practice or watched a race in the last two years. Not because he doesn’t want to, but he’s afraid it would be too painful. “Oh yeah I miss races,” his voice becomes soft “they used to even ask me just to go down there and coach them. I said I can’t do that– I’ll start crying.” He noted “it’s too hard on me.”
Mike explains this is common for retired paddlers. “They often yearn to be on the water, and watching other paddlers is a difficult reminder that they cannot be.” Also, the drop in participation is tough for his dad, just as it is hard on him. One theory about the drop in war canoe racers is that more paddlers are returning to ocean-journey canoeing, which was revived internationally in 1986.
Mike noted the way our world has changed is we have so many things we can get instant satisfaction from, such as the Internet, movies, cellphones and game systems. “It is very demanding by today’s standards to train every day for three months.” Mike starts training in the month of March to compete in the races and he finds it very rewarding.
Mike noted that it is a blessing that he races canoes at a competitive level. He added that there is no greater feeling of joy than watching the new and upcoming paddlers, as well as his own children, Catherin Reeva and Mike JR, do well in races. His children are carrying on the tradition that has been handed from our ancestors to these bright young faces of our future.
Mike noted that the canoes they are racing are new product types that have not been made before, and they are achieving speeds that have not been reached before. “It’s a pleasure to be taking part in this. My ancestral Name, Lemxacha Siyam, is seven generations old, and means canoe builder.”
Dave Jacobs, a member of the Squamish Nation and retired Captain of the Canoe Club, indicated “there is a long history of canoe pulling in my family.” Starting in the 1930’s, his grandfather Isaac Jacobs skippered and trained the team from Squamish. His grandfather used to talk about it and the canoes they used at the time. Some of the canoes, which became prominent, are the “Little Squamish” and the “Initial Mermaid.” The canoe club travelled all over the island when his grandfather was the skipper, and there were many who paddled the canoe, including Steven “Flossy” George, Joe Martin Charlie, Harry Moody, Bob Baker, Glen Newman, Ron “Poky” Newman, Frank Miranda, and Jock James. The canoe builders were Bill Discon and Harry Moody from Squamish. Dave stated “even before that, they started building the racing canoes; as a young lad on this reserve there were several canoes that were built here. They used the canoes for clam digging and fishing out in the river and bringing our clams out in Vancouver. We had huge canoes. There were always canoes here. You always see pictures of the church here in North Vancouver with canoes always at the beach and the history of canoes on the water ways – that was their transportation.”
Jack Lewis started canoe pulling in 1963 in Squamish BC “with the Lewis bunch” (Jake, Allen and Cecil, Glen Newman, and Ronny Newman), and Dave Jacobs as their Captain. Jack stated that “at the time I had no clue about canoe pulling and keeping my balance.” The team would practice every day, and during his first experience going out, the canoe flipped over due to his lack of experience. There were about 21 canoe club members. Every week they travelled to difference canoe races in Duncan, Lummi, Chehalis, and Cultus Lake. Canoe pulling kept the canoe club out of trouble for about 4 months. The training was very strict and due to the strictness they were unbeatable for two years. Jack has many trophies of their winnings and when they would place, 15 dollars would be paid out to each member.
The late Uncle Louie Miranda travelled with the Canoe Club also. He would never miss a race. Jack noted that Percy Paull was also a regular at the races. Percy looked after the canoe team by providing massages before and after the races and putting liniment on the team members. 1972 was the last year Jack raced and trained, and it was one of the worst seasons for the canoe club. The training had changed from previous years and the canoe club members were getting older. They fought for last place and Jack realized it was time to quit. But he has many wonderful memories of a winning team.
The game of Lacrosse has a long history in the Squamish Nation. The book Teiontsikwaeks, states: “The People of the Squamish Nation have been playing their own version of the game of lacrosse since pre-contact times…when the Iroquois version of the game made its way out west [it] was easily adapted by the Squamish Nation.”
According to Dennis Joseph, a member of the Squamish Nation, the game of lacrosse was called “K’exwa7” which means stick ball. “The players would use a round rock from the river… it was similar to hockey where you would try to score on the net.” Dennis noted that his understanding is that lacrosse was more for recreation in the Squamish Nation: “playing lacrosse is a part of a balance in life.” He added that “the walk of life is to be fit and competitive, and the sport also keeps the warrior going in you.” Lacrosse has been in the Joseph family for several decades – for example, his late father Willard Joseph, who was a big influence in his life, coached Dennis and his brother Patrick in lacrosse.
Dennis played lacrosse with Vancouver for 25 years, when George Baker and Tewanee Joseph brought him back to the North Shore to play (Dennis had only played with the North Shore Indians for 3 years when the team folded). Dennis noted he remembers hearing some of the conversations of the elders back in the day including the decision to amalgamate the North Shore – now it is called “North Shore Minor Lacrosse.”
There was also a woman’s team in the 1960s, and the late Connie Band was the first woman to represent Squamish in the association.
According to Dennis, at the time it was a good decision for the team to amalgamate even though they became juniors: “we got back to all Native team.” Dennis added that they would bring guys from Six Nations, which has been a tradition since the 1920’s: “for example from the Bomberry, Powless, Squire and Williams families.”
Dennis indicated that it is important for Squamish Nation youth to take the opportunities that lacrosse provides: “now the kids can go to university and college anywhere in the world, and they should take that scholarship if the opportunity comes. It will expand their horizons.”
Richard Baker (huuyaah) is also a Squamish Nation member who was recently given an achievement award from the BC Lacrosse Association, to recognize his 23 years of playing. Richard started playing when he was 16 and he is still giving it his all today. He believes it is important to give back to the community, and so he and Dennis provide lacrosse clinics – which is how field lacrosse was reintroduced. Richard stated: “nobody played after the old guys like the late Bino, Freddy, and Uncle Stan – there was a big lull from them to us.” He noted that one piece of advice he would give to you players is that they have choices in life. “There is right and wrong. Just be consciously aware of where you’re at in your life.”
Soccer is very popular amongst the youth of the Squamish Nation, and more and more Squamish youth are playing on travel rep teams and high performance teams.
Deanna Lewis, a member of the Squamish Nation, has played soccer her entire life and coaches the Squamish Thunder soccer team.
Deanna has travelled all over the world to play on top soccer clubs. It has kept her healthy and shown her that you can achieve your dreams. She believes that soccer is important to help “break the negative cycle of reservation life.” She coaches soccer because she wants to show Squamish Nation youth a healthy path.
She is grateful for the support of the Squamish Nation Chiefs and Council, Recreation Department, Peace Keepers, Elders Circle, Squamish Valley Parent Advocacy Society and the Squamish Sports and Culture Fund. Deanna started coaching ten years ago and has found it very rewarding: “I have had deep conversations with our Squamish Thunder players about eating healthy and training properly. I also tell them the story of my own struggles as a child trying to get to soccer games or tournaments.
Deanna is proud of the youth who participate: “when we go to tournaments I remind our youth that they are ambassadors and reflections of our Squamish Nation. I have heard from many nations that our youth are respectful and outstanding soccer players.” While all of the youth are fantastic, she noted that Dominick Harry is an outstanding goalie and elite athlete who is also on the Snowboard team. Other outstanding Squamish Nation soccer players are Jonathan Williams and Jason Lewis. They have been playing on travel rep teams and will be traveling to Europe with the European Soccer Football Club.