Totem Pole Blessing Ceremony in British Columbia

Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre

On 16th May 2013, Nicole Beale and I were privileged to attend the blessing of four recently completed and newly erected totem poles at the Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) in Whistler, BC, Canada. The ceremony not only blessed and thereby ‘opened’ the new poles but also honoured the four master carvers, Ray Natraoro, Xwalacktun, Aaron Nelson-Moody (known as ‘Splash’), Jonathon Joe and their apprentices for their work, thanked a wide array of people for supporting “The Spirits Within Carving Project” and helping bring it to fruition, and formally presented to the centre a 1600 year old stone bowl recently recovered from the Squamish River during excavations involving local archaeologist Dr Rudy Reimer.

The impressive entrance to the new Cultural Centre
The Cultural Centre is nestled in between the mountains that surround Whistler. The views from inside the Centre are breath-taking.

Canadian Archaeological Association Annual Conference

Nicole and I were in Whistler for the Canadian Archaeological Association Annual Conference. It was organised by Dr Eldon Yellowhorn, Piikani First Nation, and ‘hosted’ by Dr Rudy Reimer, of the Squamish First Nation – Whistler falls within the traditional territories of the Squamish Nation. Both Eldon and Rudy are Professors of Archaeology in the newly established Department of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Eldon is also Head of Department and past president of the CAA.

We were part of a day-long session Community-Oriented Archaeology. Our presentations are online at the session’s blog.

Conference session blog:

Yvonne Marshall, Presentation

Nicole Beale, Presentation and Presentation Notes

Conference website:

Totem Pole Blessing Ceremony

Exploring the grounds of the Cultural Centre. the moss-capped building in the distance is the restaurant/cafe/meeting room of the Centre.

Nicole and I we were hoping for a taste of legendary First Nations hospitality – and we were not disappointed. Being on the spot for a new totem pole blessing, not to mention ending the conference with a salmon banquet in the restaurant of the Cultural Centre, exceeded even our wilder expectations. The blessing ceremony was moving, engaging, delightful, at times irreverent and funny and at other times solemn, respectful and spiritual. The master of ceremonies was indeed masterful, slipping skilfully between ceremonial address, ritual practice, formal joking, gentle teasing, and simple explanation for those of us who would otherwise have had little idea of what was actually going on.

Looking down from the mezzanine, towards the new totem poles.

Witnessing the blessing ceremony made clear to us the extraordinary potential of this place to really make a difference to the lives of local First Nations people, but its extreme vulnerability in an unforgivingly corporate world was equally apparent. British Columbia is blessed with many outstanding museums, among them are the world renown Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Vancouver Museum, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University Museum. All are supported by major institutions with substantial budgets. The Cultural Centre is a different kind of animal altogether.

Three of the four stunning new totem poles.

The Centre opened in 2008. It was built as part of a regional development programme implemented in the lead up to the 2010 Winter Olympics hosted at Whistler. While the Centre is supported by the town of Whistler and its corporate community – both the Mayor of Whistler and a representative of at least one major hotel corporation witnessed the blessing and were formally thanked for their support – the heart of the Cultural Centre are the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations. Together they comprise some 6,000 people. This is by any calculation a modest resource base with which to maintain this extraordinary Centre, pursue an ambitious cultural journey, and further their mission to inspire, educate and engage people about Squamish and Lil’wat art and culture. No matter how talented they may be, in a world where First Nation members earn on average 20-60% less than non-aboriginal Canadians accomplishing these tasks is going to be a battle.

Totem poles outside the Cultural Centre welcome visitors.
Two spindle whorls in the entrance of the Centre.

So they are going to need lots of help and visitors! Check out if you are thinking of visiting British Columbia.

Two huge spindle whorls greet you as you enter the Centre.


The blessing ceremony was a highlight of our visit… but travelling to Vancouver Airport for our return flight to Heathrow by Canadian bush taxi – a 6-seater Beaver floatplane – was a real blast.

As you can tell from the Cheshire Cat grin, this is Nicole’s first time inside a Canadian Beaver!