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By Lauren Kramer

Spend time with members of the First Nations and you'll notice many have retained a spirituality that pervades their everyday life. Theirs is a culture and heritage with a deep respect for the earth and its living creatures. To recognize this is to see great beauty in their traditions, and to realize how tiny our conceptualization of the world is, by comparison.

There are a variety of entrepreneurial First Nations members who have made it possible for outsiders to learn about their history and traditions. In a two-day journey I traveled to towns I could barely pronounce to meet a few such individuals and for a brief moment, enter their world.

I started in Vancouver with Gary Johnston, owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, who introduced me to the long house, the traditional dwellings in which many of the First Nations tribes lived, including the Squamish nation to which he belongs.

As I entered the long house, I felt feathers brush my forehead-the feathers of the bald eagle, to be precise. First Nations members believe the bald eagle is a messenger of the Creator, and pin the bird's feathers above the doorway as part of a cleansing procedure. "When you enter a long house, it's believed that you leave all negativity outside, because inside the house is a place of positive teaching, sharing and healing," Johnston says.

It's also a place of delicious aroma, I realized, as Susan, Johnston's wife laid out a lunch of traditional First Nations' fare-wild berry tea, salmon chowder and bannock, a donut-like fried bread.

The Squamish nation has three thousand members and owns sufficient land to generate an annual income of $26 million, which makes Johnston's tribe among the more affluent bands in the province.

But there are different ways of measuring wealth, I learned when I visited Sto:lo land near the town of Mission. The Sto:lo, which means 'people of the river', were named after their location on the banks of the Fraser River. Thousands of years ago, they were considered very rich because they could preserve the salmon caught from the Fraser River.

Xa:ytem is a crucial historic site for the Sto:lo, although no-one knew it until the 1990s. That's when an area developer began carving up the land to construct a residential neighbourhood. As his crew went to work, they began unearthing the remains of a 6,000- year-old Sto:lo settlement.

With some resistance, the residential development came to a halt and the Sto:lo people earned the right to excavate their past and examine the 40,000-odd artifacts that have emerged from the land. They include cobble choppers, hammer stones, projectile points and even ceremonial paint.

As we walked around the site, we came across a large stone. "This is the sacred transformer stone, a physical manifestation of Sto:lo spirituality," said Linnea Battel, director of the Xa:ytem Longhouse Interpretive Centre. "Sometimes, when we come here, we can hear the voices of our ancestors chanting as they circle the stone."

I listened carefully, but determined that to truly hear anything, you had to listen with a different kind of sensitivity. The thought crossed my mind again later that day, this time as I ventured out with Willie Charlie, owner of Sasquatch Tours.

It was close to dusk, and we were out on his boat up the Harrison River to view the petroglyphs, ancient drawings made on the rock face many centuries ago by his ancestors. Eagles were everywhere, but as the light dwindled, I had the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot on my mind.

Willie, a man in his late 40s, was recounting a memory he'd retained from the age of seven. He'd been hiking with friends in the same stretch of river and forest that surrounded us this day, when from deep in the bowels of the woods came a high-pitched, blood curdling shriek. "It was a completely inhuman sound," he said. "And being young and full of bravado at the time, I shouted back at it."

When he returned home to his elders and shared the story, he was scolded for responding at all. "That was the Sasquatch you heard," his grandmother told him solemnly. "You had a Sasquatch encounter, which is very rare."

The dusky mountains had never looked as mysterious as they did right then.


1. Gary Johnston, owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, introduces visitors to the traditions of the Squamish First Nations. Photo: Lauren Kramer

2. Gary Johnston's sister Wendy welcomes visitors to the Long House with a song of peace, beating the rhythm on a small drum. Photo: Lauren Kramer

3. A Sto:lo band member describes everyday life in the Xa:ytem pithouse. Photo: Margaret Deefholts

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