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Indigenous art flourishes at the SLCC gift shop

The Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre sells artworks and merchandise to support First Nations talent

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The gift shop on the lower level of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) is overflowing — in recent years art and merchandise displays have spilled into the cafeteria area.

There are original West Coast Indigenous bas-relief carvings of animals and spirits, and other traditional First Nations artworks such as basketry and masks, alongside manufactured items such as clothing, glassware, pottery, household items, and jewelry.

Kimberley Stanger, the manager of operations at the SLCC, says business is booming.

"It reflects the demand from visitors," she says.

"We know those who come, particularly in the summer, are interested in small souvenir items that they can tuck into their suitcases."

Whistler's public home for the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, mornings at the SLCC have been very busy this summer.

Travel trade to Whistler has made it a major stop-off, with busloads of foreign visitors coming up the Sea to Sky Highway from April to September. Four busses fill the SLCC parking lot on the day of my visit.

Tourists arrive as early as 7 a.m. for a breakfast, then take a tour led by an SLCC cultural ambassador, who can come from either local First Nation.

"We literally have hundreds of buses coming for breakfast throughout the summer," Stanger says.

"There is a big demand. The busier we are for different cultural delivery experiences, the better the gift shop does."

"We get hundreds of people in the gift shop so we took advantage of the café space by moving retail out here."

The SLCC has a three-tiered approach to accepting Indigenous art or manufactured goods to support artists and confirm authenticity: there are the handcrafted pieces by First Nations' artists; objects designed by Indigenous artists that are manufactured elsewhere; and items that are designed by Indigenous artists for non-native companies for which they receive royalties and have say over how the design is used.

Companies that mimic or appropriate Indigenous art are rejected — Stanger says there are plenty out there.

Along with the large selection of original art available by B.C. artists, other Indigenous communities from around Canada are represented, including the Inuit and Dene.

Original pieces are sold on consignment, a concession to the limited budget of the non-profit SLCC, but this is changing, Stanger says, with more pieces being purchased directly from the artist and placed for resale in the shop.

Stanger says First Nations' artists also hold day residencies at the SLCC, working on their art in public in the Great Hall, often selling pieces to the visitors who have watched them at work.

This includes carver Qawam (Redmond Andrews) of the Lil'wat, who works both as a cultural ambassador and as an artist. Stanger says that the work he carves is often sold before he can get it downstairs to the gift shop.

His talent runs in the family; his late father Bruce Edmonds carved the Lil'wat spindle whorl on display and the SLCC's cedar front doors.

For more information on the gift shop and programs, visit www.slcc.ca.

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