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Vancouver explores its First Nations roots

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

Wearing a woven cedar headband that distinguished her from the other boots-and-backpack-clad hikers, Candace Campo guided a walk in Stanley Park last fall, pointing out pathside huckleberries and blackberries. She stripped a soft piece of bark from a fraying cedar trunk to demonstrate how it can be used as fiber for clothing, and detailed how to extract vitamin C from western hemlock needles by steeping them in boiling water.

"Stanley Park is the park of the people," she said, intimating far more than the inhabitants of the glass high-rises that overlook the nearly 1,000-acre peninsular park on Vancouver's waterfront. "Prior to interactions with Europe, Stanley Park was central to the Coast Salish people."

Their ancestors have lately come to reclaim the region, at least in the interpretive sense. Beyond the totem poles long displayed in the park, visitors to Vancouver can now gain a fuller appreciation for the area's native people, known as First Nations, by staying in the city's only First Nations lodge, touring an expanded collection of native art, dining on First Nations cuisine and exploring the urban rain forest with a native guide.

Keen to protect their traditions, many indigenous tribes have long maintained a cautious distance from tourism. But tribal peoples in British Columbia have found respectful and increasingly popular ways to convey their culture to the curious. In 2015, according to the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia, business grew 10 percent over the year before, to more than $50 million in sales. And the newly elected Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has made it his business to increase ties to First Nations peoples, appointing two indigenous ministers to his cabinet.

"Even people in Canada don't know First Nations cultures," said Keith Henry, former chief executive of the association. "It's doing a lot for reconciliation. People want to hear authentic stories of the history of the land and of the people."

Moving into the province's biggest city, Vancouver, First Nations interests have produced the city's first native hotel, Skwachays Lodge. Proceeds from the intimate 18-room boutique hotel, opened in the fall of 2014, support 24 artists in residence in the building. Six native artists paired up with six local interior designers to create the individually decorated rooms that might include the legend of the raven covering one wall, or evoke a community gathering place known as a long house.

A First Nations gallery does double duty as the hotel reception, and the hotel maintains a tentlike sweat lodge on the roof terrace. It adjoins a Smudge Room where guests can undergo a purification ritual under the guidance of a medicine man.

"This was a healing lodge originally for First Nations people coming to the city for medical treatment, and we wanted to make the rituals available to our guests who are interested in sustainable tourism and native culture," said Maggie Edwards, general manager of the hotel.

Across False Creek from the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, where the hotel is located, is Salmon 'n Bannock, which says it is Vancouver's sole First Nations restaurant. Its owner, Inez Cook, opened the 30-seat cafe in 2010 with just five menu items as a way of exploring her own First Nations background as a Nuxalk native.

"I wanted the word bannock in the title so First Nations people would understand," said Cook, referring to the often heavy unleavened bread that is a staple of indigenous diets across Canada, "and I wanted salmon for people who might not know bannock."

The Capilano Tea House & Botanical Soda Company was opened on Feb. 1 by the mother-daughter team Michelle and Paisley Nahanee of the Squamish Nation, offering local berries and nettles fused with globally sourced teas, and bannock and jam.

Vancouver has long been a showcase for First Nations art, led by the immersive University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology. Last fall, the Vancouver Art Gallery acquired much of the acclaimed First Nations art of the late San Francisco collector George Gund III, which includes animated masks of an eagle, a shark and other spirits by the master carver Robert Davidson.

Back in Stanley Park, Candace Campo concluded her 90-minute Talking Trees tour by specifying medicinal uses for native plants, noting a renewed interest on the part of First Nations people, as well as visitors, in indigenous practices from the arts to cooking.

"The rain forest is the reason our people are returning to the plants," she said. "They are a free pharmacy."

Vancouver, British Columbia

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Vancouver explores its First Nations roots 03/09/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2016 1:28pm]
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