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'Role models' capture ATBC award

SLCC's Anderson, Lewis 'embody the meaning of cultural sharing'

Drew Leathem, the general manager of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) in Whistler, says he's not overly concerned -not for the moment, anyway -about the fact that both Joshua Anderson and Willie Lewis want his job. He just admires their confidence and ambition.

That's just one of the many reasons Leathem and others in charge of the SLCC nominated Anderson and Lewis for the honour they collected at a gala ceremony last Thursday (March 19) in Richmond -the Young Adult Achievement Award, handed out by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (ATBC).

Anderson, a member of the Lil'wat Nation, and Lewis, a Squamish Nation member, have a fair bit in common, including the fact that both are 26 years old. But for Leathem, the three things that stand out most are their pride, their leadership and their strength.

"We feel they're valuable role models in their communities," Leathem said of Anderson and Lewis, both of whom work as front-line managers at the SLCC. They have overseen a staff of 21 centre employees since the centre's opening last July.

"Josh and Willie have been really strong contributors to this project," Leathem said. "They were involved in start-up and they've done an exceptional job taking a non-entity through to its operation. When we saw the awards coming up, we thought this would be a good opportunity to recognize them for their efforts."

The centre, which has attracted worldwide acclaim, is the result of a unique partnership between the two neighbouring First Nations. Leathem said the fact that the two come from opposite sides of that partnership is one reason they've been so successful in their appointed roles.

And frontline managers at the SLCC don't just conduct staff meetings and draw up work schedules. They're integral to almost everything associated with the side of the centre that the public sees: From leading Aboriginal singing and drumming sessions with other centre staff to doing outreach work at local hotels and other businesses.

According to the ATBC award description, Anderson and Lewis "embody the meaning of cultural sharing. In just one year, Joshua and Willie have contacted over 10,000 people including government organizations, NGOs, media outlets, and special guests in an effort to raise awareness about Aboriginal culture. Whether it's delivering homemade bannock to local companies, evaluating programs, or running large events like The Terry Fox Run or the Peak to Peak opening, these young men are making significant strides in maintaining the vitality of their culture in a breathtaking place, 'where mountains, rivers, and people meet.'"

Anderson grew up in Vancouver, but his family moved back "home" to Mount Currie in 1989, when he was six. He said he first "discovered" his culture when he joined a hand drumming and signing group organized by his late uncle, Eugene Dick.

In 1996, as a member of a group called Lil'wat Halaw (halaw means "golden eagle"), Anderson shared his culture and talents during a cultural exchange trip to Japan.

He remembers that his efforts to learn and share his peoples' culture always made his parents, Donna and Lex Joseph, extremely proud.

"That's what really kept me going," Anderson said, adding without hesitation, "and I must say, my voice is pretty spectacular."

Asked what he feels when he's performing for guests at the centre, Anderson said, "My ancestors. I feel them singing through me when I sing."

Lewis' mother, Lisa Lewis, is a member of the Squamish Nation, while his father Willie Lewis is African American. Willie Jr. said he mostly learned about his First Nations heritage from his aunts and uncles on his mother's side.

Having grown up in Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle, Lewis moved back closer to the heart of Squamish Nation territory when he came to work at the SLCC. He said it truly felt like a homecoming.

"My aunties and uncles congratulate me for what I'm doing, and they teach me a lot that I didn't know before. They tell me stories from the past," he said.

Anderson said he has enjoyed learning more about the Squamish Nation language, music and culture almost as much as he does sharing his own. His favourite song to share with others, though, is a traditional Lil'wat song called the Dancing Song, which he first heard on a recording made in the early 1900s.

Leathem said the staff at the centre perform every hour on the half hour, and lead both tour and school groups who visit the centre. That's in addition to performing outreach in the community -performing at the IPC World Cup races, for example, or delivering bannock to local businesses.

"It's a fairly daunting task taking a group that shows up 50 at a time," he said. "Someone from the centre has to be the person to step forward, head held high, and convey the message on a cultural level, and these are the guys who do it."

Said Lewis, "I like learning our songs and learning about our cultures a lot. I also really enjoy meeting people from around the world. We have locals coming in, too, but it's always new and it's always changing."

"The cool thing is that the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre is a joint creation and operation," Leathem said, "and it's super cool that we've got strong, front-line leaders from each nation. At a cultural level Josh and Willie are two of the strongest cultural models that we have there."

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