First Nations welcome figure hints to rich, deep history

Carved cedar tree now stands guard at entrance to Peak 2 Peak Gondola

There's a small information plaque on the newly-installed First Nations welcome figure at the entrance to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola on Whistler Mountain, but a whole book could be written about the background of the project, the pole itself, the artists who carved it, and its meaning.

The carved cedar tree offers a small window of insight into the cultures of the Lil'wat and Squamish nations -people who have called the Whistler area home for thousands of years. It's designed to welcome visitors to the nations' shared traditional territory, and to plant a seed of curiosity in viewers to learn more about the Squamish and Lil'wat cultures.

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"People who see this figure will understand they walk in our lands," said Franklin Andrew of the Lil'wat Nation at a ceremony held for the figure on Thursday (Sept. 2).

"(It's) a marker of friendship; a marker of relationship building," said Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacob.

The welcome figure project was a joint effort by the Lil'wat and Squamish nations and the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation. It's part of the larger Sea to Sky Cultural Journey, which consists of information kiosks and signs along Highway 99, designed to help promote Aboriginal tourism in the region.

Squamish Chief Ian Campbell said the statue acts as a protector and guardian of the land. It offers the two nations a physical presence on Whistler Mountain and helps showcase "our beautiful culture," he said.

Dave Brownlie, president of the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, said the figure is a starting place for visitors and mountain staff members to begin learning the rich history and culture of the lands that now serve as an outdoor recreation area. The pole will hopefully prompt people to visit the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, he added.

The story of how the yellow cedar tree came to be harvested from Whistler Mountain to be carved into the figure begins with Stuart Rempel and his son, Taylor. After details of the welcome figure project were finalized, the pair went ski touring in May to look for trees that might fit the purpose, Stuart Rempel said.

They found the tree in the Symphony area, measured and marked it. Master Squamish Nation carver Xwalacktun (also known as Rick Harry) and others performed a traditional blessing for the tree before cutting it down. Over the next two months or so, Xwalacktun and three other carvers, including his son James Harry, carved the welcome figure outside the SLCC.

Rempel said he spent a short time with Xwalacktun while he was carving and the artist remarked on the "huge amount of character," such as large knots and other features in the tree. Taylor Rempel's hand provided the outline for the left hand of the frog that's carved into the back of the pole, and Stuart's wife's hand was used for the right hand.

"I feel really privileged I got to be involved (in the project)," Stuart said.

The person at the top of the pole is extending his hands in a gesture that signifies a "big welcome," Xwalacktun said. The marmot underneath represents people in Whistler, as the mountain was named after its resident whistling marmots.

The frog on the back was included as a symbol for the Lil'wat people after a Lil'wat elder told Xwalacktun there were once a lot of frogs in the area, he said. The hind legs of the frog are the shape of the carver's own feet, he said.

People from all over the world talked with Xwalacktun and the other carvers and helped take part in the project at the SLCC. Other handprints on the pole are outlines of visitors' hands such as a four-year-old girl from England, he said.

The hands symbolize that "we're all connected," Xwalacktun said.

For more info on the SLCC and the Cultural Journey, visit slcc.ca.

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