It began with an attempt to find reasonably priced accommodations in downtown Vancouver, Canada over the U.S. Thanksgiving Day weekend. An intriguing name rose to the top of the search engine feed: Skwachays Lodge: Aboriginal Hotel and Gallery. Located on West Pender Street across the street from Vancouver’s Millennium Gate entrance to Chinatown, the hotel was not only reasonably priced, but within walking distance of almost everything we wanted to see. Owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the hotel had the added attraction of not only a fair trade gallery of art by First Nation artists, but each room was decorated by a team of Native artists and interior designers with unique indigenous art work. Finding Skwachays Lodge inspired a theme for the weekend’s trip – what other First Nation owned businesses could we support while in Vancouver?
The lodge is the first Native owned urban hotel in Canada. Originally the Vancouver Native Housing Authority bought and renovated the building to be used for indigenous people seeking medical treatment at Vancouver area hospitals; but when it got less use than anticipated, the Housing Authority turned it into a boutique hotel for tourists and art studio and living space for indigenous artists. Eighteen suites on the top floors are for paying guests.
Each suite has a theme and an evocative name such as the Sea Kingdom Suite, Moon Suite and the Wilderness Teachings Suite. Ours was the Northern Lights Suite featuring two beaded metal wall hangings by Nancy A. Luis, one of a black bear and another of two wolves singing to the moon woven into a dream catcher. A wall mural painted by Jerry Whitehead of a procession of powwow dancers beneath the Northern Lights greeted us every time we entered and left the room. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you can appreciate the details and art of the suites here.
Proceeds from the hotel support the indigenous artists who live on the other floors of the hotel and their studio spaces which are located there as well. “You arrive as a guest and leave as a friend,” said the front desk clerk who checked us in and then showed us the breakfast room (pointing out the single slab cedar breakfast bar), fireplace and seating area to read, sip a glass of wine and meet the other guests, all of them drawn by the experience of supporting the unique dual mission of hotel.
It was Thanksgiving, we had a travel theme and so we asked the staff at Skwachays for a dinner recommendation. They suggested the First Nation owned Salmon and Bannock Bistro on West Broadway. The small restaurant was packed. Indigenous art hung from its red walls and the menu was all savory aboriginal dishes from local ingredients including bannock, bison tenderloin, game sausage and Indian Candy (salmon smoked and candied). The restaurant serves wine from Nk’Mip Cellars, British Columbia’s only First Nation winery.
The hotel staff became our resource for cultural experiences as well. In addition to all of the art, there was a smudge room on our floor which can be used by hotel guests with advance reservations through the hotel. We hadn’t done that so the staff recommended the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art to see the works of Canada’s acclaimed Haida artist and other indigenous carvings, paintings and jewelry. The gallery is like a museum with touch screens that explain the art and often artists at work. The hotel also advised us on how to use the city’s extensive mass transit system to get to the Museum of Anthropology located on the University of British Columbia campus.
MOA, the Museum of Anthropology is home to Canada’s best collection of indigenous art and artifacts. Even the architecture of the building was inspired by Northwest Native post and beam structures. Full length windows in the Great Hall help showcase many towering totem poles and wooden carvings. The museum also features indigenous cultural artifacts from all over the globe in room after room of display cases and pull-out drawers all tastefully displayed and explained. To do the museum justice takes most of a day.
Skwachays Lodge: 29/31 West Pender Street 1-888-998-0797 http://www.skwachays.com
Salmon and Bannock Bistro: 1128 West Broadway, #7 1-604-568-8971 m.salmonandbannock.net
Nk’Mip Cellars: http://www.nkmipcellars.com
Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art 639 Hornby St http://www.billreidgallery.ca