Learning about the land via high-tech museum experiences and high-flying float plane tours
Buckled in the passenger’s seat, I can see one of Josh Ramsay’s Converse shoes waving in the air as he leans across the windshield. He’s outside, spraying the glass with Pledge. “For polishing furniture—and planes!” he says with a grin.
Ramsay is the owner of Sunshine Coast Air, and he’s splayed across the tiny float plane we’re taking up the Sechelt Inlet. His easygoing nature is very much representative of coast folks: there’s a laid-back vibe here that hits the second you step off the ferry from Horseshoe Bay. Rolling ocean waves and impossibly tall evergreen trees paint a picture of an eternally serene—and largely people-less—place. But, like much of Canada’s landscape, it’s not quite what it seems.
Alyssa Hirose's view from the Sunshine Coast Air float plane
The Sechelt float plane base is just a four-minute drive north from the tems swiya Museum, which was our first stop on the coast. Let’s rewind a bit. This Shíshálh (Sechelt) Nation museum was the perfect introduction to the land—after all, isn’t it customary to start at the beginning?
The doors of tems swiya open to reveal a hallway full of handwoven cedar root basket displays, and the main room contains artifacts like stone spears and arrowheads, plus two bricks preserved from a residential school that was demolished in 1975. But among the timeworn items on display, there’s also an exhibit that’s jarringly futuristic: a digital facial reconstruction of four Shíshálh individuals. From behind a screen, the figures breathe, blink and move ever so slightly. Museum curator Raquel Joe tells us that they’re her Shíshálh ancestors who lived around 4,000 years ago, discovered in a burial ground that’s twice as old. Called ‘kw’enusitsht tems stutula, which translates to Face to Face with Our Ancestors, the exhibit shows a chief (estimated to be 50 years old when he passed), his daughter (20) and twin sons (18).
Alyssa Hirose. Sunshine Coast
“Like CSI, right?” remarks Joe as she tells us how scientists and designers (some based in France) created the piece, which was first revealed in 2021. From the remains, experts estimated that the chief was five-foot-seven—making him the tallest person ever found on the coast who lived in that time period. They could also tell that he was absolutely ripped; his muscles were so large that they had warped the shape of his bones. But even more mind-boggling is what he was buried with: 350,000 handmade stone and shell beads. “Nothing like that has ever been found in Canada, the U.S. or South America,” says Joe, who was integral to the creation of this exhibit.
‘kw’enusitsht tems stutula (Face to Face with Our Ancestors). Photo: shishalh.com
Alyssa Hirose. The beads buried with the chiefSeeing the living, breathing recreations of this Shíshálh family makes this museum experience drastically different from the norm. It’s a striking statement of belonging, and a reminder of a history that colonizers tried to wipe away. But that history remains. Joe says she can feel the family’s spirits and hear them talking. “If your chest gets heavy, that’s the ancestors,” she says.
Back to the plane. Ramsay is safely back next to me in the pilot’s seat as we take off across the water, lifting up just enough to get a bird’s eye view of the Sechelt Inlet. I can see the roofs of private vacation homes and tiny cabins, but mostly it’s just trees, mountains and water. Now, I can really see the land that Joe’s ancestors thrived in—and I can hear about it, too.
Through noise-cancelling headphones (a must, the plane is loud) I’m listening to Candace Campo of Talaysay Tours. The Vancouver tourism company partnered with Sunshine Coast Air to launch this audio and aerial tour in the fall of 2022. Like Joe, Campo is a member of the Shíshálh Nation—“I was born in Porpoise Bay, the community to the right of you,” she says in the recording. As we fly north up the inlet, Campo tells us about Shíshálh customs and culture (for example, hosting a potlatch during the winter meant your guests lived with you for the entire season, which resulted in a high rate of cultural sharing and multilingualism—the average person spoke three to five languages) and links family stories to geography (as we soar over the Skookumchuck rapids, she tells us that her uncles have caught six-foot-long lingcod there). She also tells us that, today, there are 1,700 Shíshálh people living on the Sunshine Coast. Before colonial contact, there were over 20,000.
On this stretch of B.C.’s coastline, there’s lots of talk about seasonality—summer is the busy season, when “locals” are overwhelmed by vacationers. But tours of tems swiya are available year-round, as is the Talaysay x Sunshine Coast Air flight (weather dependent, of course). To travel mindfully in 2022 is to know whose land you’re on—and, thanks to Indigenous educators, you don’t have to look hard to find the answer here on the Sunshine Coast.
Indigenous art destinations on the Sunshine Coast
Tems swiya has an awesome gift shop (think prints, clothing, homewares and more designed by Indigenous artists). And while you’re in the area, check out these Indigenous makers, too.
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Coast Raven Design Studio
Jewellery artist Richard de la Mare opened Coast Raven in 1970—serendipitously, the same year his future studio partner was born. Now, de la Mare and Tsleil-Waututh wood carver Artie George run this home-based gallery together, selling their own intricate necklaces, striking masks and more.
4668 Sunshine Coast Hwy., Sechelt
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Red Cedar Woman Studio
For some hands-on learning, sign up for a workshop from Coast Salish weaver Jessica Silvey—participants can learn how to craft blankets, baskets, shawls and more. In-studio, there’s handcrafted fibre art for sale, plus bath and body products and sage blends for smudging.