Family and friends gathered at Totem Hall Friday to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Squamish Nation elder Alex Williams.
Imagine all that has changed in the Sea to Sky since 1929, the year he was born.
Williams didn’t speak English until he was 13, something that enabled him to maintain his Skwx_wú7mesh snichim (Squamish language) to this day. The story goes that when the RCMP came calling to his North Yards home to force him to attend residential school — as was the law at the time — his father gave him some bread and told him to go hide in the fields until it was safe.
Thus, Williams is one of the last remaining original Squamish language speakers.
When he was a young man, Squamish and Brackendale were two different communities.
Between Cleveland Avenue and Judd, “there were only green fields and forest, linked by a quiet winding road,” notes Kevin McLane in his book Squamish: The Shining Valley.
Squamish became incorporated as a village in 1948.
The federal government banned potlatches in 1880s, so Williams would have lived under that ban — though many Coast Salish continued the tradition despite the law.
He would have seen the reversal of that ban in 1951.
He would have witnessed the locally famous Chief Joe Mathias be born, grow up and die. Mathias was, “the great Squamish warrior who fought unrelentingly for the rights of his own people and on behalf of Aboriginal people across the country,” as Wendy John described him in his eulogy in 2000.
Williams was close to the same age as Mazie Baker, a fierce defender of Squamish people and Aboriginal women’s rights (If you get the chance, read The Amazing Mazie Baker, by Kay Johnston, such an interesting woman Baker was.)
Changes that impact Squamish to this day that happened during Williams’ lifetime include the Nov.14, 1938 opening of the Lions Gate Bridge. (Vehicles paid a .25 cents per car toll, until 1963).
Whistler Mountain opened in 1966.
Significant economic and resource development by the Squamish Nation has also taken place over his lifetime.
Why should all this matter to those outside of his family?
Many of the “old-timers” in Squamish who our reporters talk to for stories in the paper each week, say they aren’t opposed to progress or to new people moving in next door — despite the fact that most acknowledge there is a tension between “old” and “new” Squamish. What they bemoan most often is that the newcomers don’t seem interested in the history of the place that is now their home.
If you want to know more, tune in to the stories of the elders we are lucky enough to still have in our community.
It is through understanding the lives and milestones experienced by elders of the community that a true respect for this place and those who live here can grow.