Without textbooks or diagrams, an oral culture shares technology by apprenticeship. Working alongside a master. A direct transmission of knowledge, person to person.
It’s a slow-paced way to accumulate expertise, and vulnerable, but that sense of steadying slowness infuses the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre from the moment one pushes open the huge carved entry doors and steps inside.
The foyer is wide and uncluttered, and staff nod acknowledgement at your entry, but let you acclimatize. You adjust to the light, the height of the ceiling, the waft of cedar. Your heart rate settles. You read the first signs – maps that outline the traditional territories of the Squamish, the Lil’wat, and notice that the territories are anchored by rivers in the same way that a map of the human body is all veins and arteries. You are oriented to the fact, as you make your approach to the welcome counter, that you are now in a place that honours Story.
Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears and nostrils – all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness… For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus on… Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation…
[This is not to] imply that we must renounce all our complex technologies. But… we must renew our acquaintance with the sensuous world in which our techniques and technologies are all rooted. Without the oxygenating breath of the forests, without the clutch of gravity and the tumbled magic of river rapids, we have no distance from our technologies, no way of assessing their limitations, no way to keep ourselves from turning into them.
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
It’s a good feeling place, neither dusty museum nor mausoleum. It’s a space full of possibility. A place you could visit again and again, and come away each time with something different.
When I go to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre for the first time, the no-rush energy seems benefit enough. I feel the open space and expansion of time and think, if that’s all I get out of this, that will have been worth it.
Later, Squamish Nation ambassador, David Baker explains to me: “we treat our art as biodegradable. That’s how we keep our art alive, because you have to be able to replace it. We let a totem pole fall down, so it’s up to the young artists to replace it.”
This seems radical to me. Radically different from the culture I grew up in – where art is turned into artefact and hidden behind glass, where masters of the past are revered and hover over you to mock your ambition, “what, you think you could be the next Picasso?”
The willingness to let even masterful pieces of art be reclaimed by the earth is an invitation to the next generation to step up, not to be overwhelmed by history, but to keep the life-energy moving, keep the culture dynamic. When the storyteller runs out of breath, or begins to fall asleep, the storytelling will fall silent. But as long as someone is willing to pick up the thread and weave on, the culture remains alive.
That newly issued invitation, my locals pass (the price of one general admission entry), and the free wireless downstairs in the cafe, makes me think I might just have found my new favourite place to write.