It began with an attempt to find reasonably priced accommodations in downtown Vancouver, Canada over a holiday 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 from Vancouver's Millennium Gate entrance to Chinatown, the hotel was not only reasonably priced, but within walking distance of almost everything I 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 I support while in Vancouver?
Exploring First Nation Art at Skwachays Lodge in Vancouver
The lodge is the first Native owned urban hotel in Canada. Originally, the Vancouver Native Housing Authority bought and renovated the building for indigenous people seeking medical treatment in Vancouver. When it received less use than anticipated, the Housing Authority converted the building for dual purpose and complementary functions. It now serves as a boutique hotel for tourists and an 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—Sea Kingdom Suite, Moon Suite and Wilderness Teachings Suite. Mine was the Northern Lights Suite featuring two beaded metal wall hangings by indigenous artist Nancy A. Luis. One was of a black bear and another of two wolves singing to the moon woven into a dream catcher.
A colorful wall mural painted by indigenous artist Jerry Whitehead greeted me every time I entered and left the room. It illustrated a procession of powwow dancers beneath the Northern Lights.
Proceeds from the hotel support the indigenous artists who live and have studio space on other floors of the hotel. “You arrive as a guest and leave as a friend,” the front desk clerk told us. She showed us the breakfast room, pointing out its carved single slab cedar breakfast bar. The room had a welcoming fireplace and seating area for reading, sipping a glass of wine and meeting the other guests, all drawn by the experience of supporting the hotel's unique dual mission.
In addition to all of the art, there was a smudge room on my hotel floor that can be used by guests with advance reservations through the hotel.
First Nation Dining in Vancouver
I 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. The menu was all savory aboriginal dishes from local ingredients including bannock, bison tenderloin, game sausage. There was also Indian Candy—smoked and candied salmon.
The restaurant also serves wine from Nk’Mip Cellars, British Columbia's only First Nation winery.
First Nation Cultural Experiences in Vancouver
The hotel staff became my resource for indigenous cultural experiences in Vancouver as well. They recommended the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art to see the works of Canada's acclaimed Haida artist as well as other First Nation artist created carvings, paintings and jewelry. The gallery is like a museum with touch screens that explain the art and often give you a glimpse of the artists at work.
The hotel also advised me on how to use the city's extensive mass transit system to get to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) located on the University of British Columbia Vancouver campus.
MOA is the impressive 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 display cases and pull-out drawers all tastefully displayed and explained. To do the museum justice takes most of a day. Vancouver’s First Nation tourist experience is meant to be savored, not rushed.