Squamish: the Land, the People, the Love

This September, I had the privilege of taking a class called “Squamish Nation Culture and Lifeways” with Leigh Joseph. Here are three things that stuck out to me (the lessons which continue to affect me even after finishing the class).

  1. Sense of Place and Sense of Self

Moving to Squamish a year ago, I didn’t know anything about the Squamish First Nation who have inhabited the land for as long as anyone can remember. From my own knowledge of First Nations people, there is an immense amount of respect for and connection to the land, as well as generations before and after you. I have a fascination with our connection to place, and the land, and how our sense of place grounds our sense of self. After moving thousands of miles (from California to Ontario), I have realized how much I still feel connected to California as a place (the hills, forests, ocean) and how much my identity is shaped by it. When I moved to Squamish, I wanted to explore my new home and examine how the people are shaped by it. I immediately felt a connection to Squamish as a place, and I wanted to investigate that feeling.

In the Squamish Nation, sense of place and sense of self are completely intertwined. It was said that to have a Squamish culture, they need the land and they need the language. The land (mountains, rivers, forest, and the ocean) has completely shaped their identity. Because of the easy access to water, they became a fishing community. They have learned how to use the plants of the area and how to interact with the animals. Even their language (a huge aspect of sense of self) is affected by the land. The pronunciation of many words has a very airy sound, reflecting the wind that is so often blowing in Squamish.

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Being surrounded by mountains effected the Squamish Nation’s way of life. Most people who come to Squamish fall in love with the beautiful mountains as well.
Squamish people are very connected to salmon, both spiritually and practically. This is one technique for cooking fishover the fire.
Squamish people are very connected to salmon, both spiritually and practically. This is one technique for cooking fishover the fire.
  1. Traditional Learning

We learned in the traditional way that Squamish elders might use with the youth. Most of their legends, lessons, language, and history aren’t written down – simply relying on people to continue to tell stories and keep the information alive. We could have listened to lectures, watched videos, and taken notes on power points about every aspect of Squamish Nation life – a lot of courses are taught in this way. But instead, we talked with elders, learned songs and dances, shared stories, and explored the land. During some classes I didn’t even think I was learning anything, until I thought about it later and realized the legends I was being told had deeper meanings and described history and culture. I felt like I really experienced the Squamish Nation, which is more meaningful and long-lasting than simply learning about it.

We learned about the uses of plants in the forest behind Quest - drinking traditional teas, testing natural dyes, and trying First Nations medicine.
We learned about the uses of plants in the forest behind Quest – drinking traditional teas, testing natural dyes, and trying First Nations medicine.
We learned how to do a traditional Pit-Cook which included roasting vegetables and salmon in a dirt pit.
We learned how to do a traditional Pit-Cook which included roasting vegetables and salmon in a dirt pit.
  1. Hope

The First Nations community, spanning Canada, has experienced many trials and tribulations over the years. They have withstood and continue to withstand marginalization, abuse, racism, great loss, and countless other horrific experiences. A few times during this course, my entire class was brought to tears in disbelief and despair. (It’s one thing to learn about Residential Schools from a textbook or in a movie – but when people tell you their own family’s experience in the schools and how they still experience the effects generations and generations after hits much closer to home.) I began to wonder how communities could even come back from this kind of tragedy or withstand any more. Again and again, the strength of community left me in awe. There were so many stories of people coming together to support each other, to find answers, and to break the cycle of abuse or poverty. In the end it was love and support that could triumph over hatred and pain.

However, as a non-native person I still felt slightly guilty (how could my country do this?) and helpless (what can I do as a white person?!). But I realized that even the simple act of learning about the culture and listening to people’s personal stories starts the cycle of healing. Many people who spoke to our class stressed how grateful they were to us for listening and caring. Reconciliation starts with listening and understanding, something I think everyone can learn to do.

I feel so lucky to have been able to experience such a beautiful part of my home and connect to such amazing people. Again, Quest has given me opportunities I might not have received elsewhere. How could I be happier anywhere else?

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