Nearly hidden among sword ferns, vine maples and poplars off a quiet residential street in North Seattle is a small clearing, and nestled within is a circular ring filled with spring water and a spout draining red ochre mud in the ground below. To the original inhabitants of our land, it’s a sacred place.
This site, called líq’tәd (pronounced LEE’kteed) in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish people, is part of líq’tәd (Licton) Springs Park, Seattle’s newest designated city landmark. A sacred site for the Duwamish people for thousands of years, líq’tәd has served as a place for indigenous ceremonies, healing, prayer and for its namesake red iron oxide. The landmark designation — which was the culmination of a multiyear, hard fought, grassroots effort — raises important questions about what we value as a city, what deserves protection and why.
Incredibly, líq’tәd (Licton) Springs Park is the first known landmark designation in Seattle for a Native site or cultural place, even as Seattle itself is named for Duwamish leader Chief Si’ahl or Sealth, and is built on Duwamish land. Líq’tәd is also one of only a handful of landmarks that is not a building or structure.
So why did it take until 2019 to landmark a Native cultural site in Seattle? Shouldn’t our region’s original inhabitants be the first people we honor? Their revered sites the first places we protect?
Matt Remle (Lakota), a líq’tәd supporter and activist, was part of the Native-led team that worked for five years to landmark the site, approved by the Landmarks Board on Oct. 16. Remle says many people have their priorities backward. “They look at a forest and they don’t see that as ‘progress.’ Like that needs to be a dollar sign. That’s what they’re looking for. [Thinking] I can make money off of that forest as opposed to, ‘that place should stay that way because of its significance beyond dollars and cents.’ [Líq’tәd] can’t be replicated.”
Scanning the current list of 400-plus city landmarks reflects what (and who) we value. A 2016 analysis by 4Culture found that only 7.8% of landmarks were “primarily significant” for their association with underrepresented communities, which was broadly defined to include people of color, women, labor, LGBTQ people, early European settlers and others. Even acknowledging gaps in data for their research, that number is clearly low.
For Native communities, “hyper-invisibility” is even more extreme, Remle said. “We are constantly having to prove ourselves and prove our existence and prove our everything,” he said. “We are so small in numbers that I don’t think a lot of people are really aware of how Native folks are impacted” by inequality in systems like criminal justice and education, Remle said.
But efforts like the Licton Springs landmark process may help to change that. Core to the approach was to use the effort as a way to build the leadership and skills of Native youth as well as creating healing for elders.
With support from the Seattle Public Library and the United Native Education Alliance (UNEA), young people from the UNEA’s Seattle Clear Sky Native Youth Council learned skills in public speaking, social media, film production and workshop facilitation that they applied to moving the landmark designation process forward. Remle’s sons, Chayton and Canté, were two of the youth in the group.
Remle said maintaining Native self-determination and building skills for the next generation were more important than efficiency in the process. “I really wanted to show — as painful and as tedious as this is — we can do it [ourselves]. … I think sadly a lot of time in our Native community they just feel so powerless [from] a constant barrage of attacks. … This gives tools for our young people to know that they have the power and ability to make these changes.”
For Native people, this feeling of powerlessness is exacerbated by centuries of genocide and oppression, which led to the worst outcomes by nearly every socio-economic measure.
Sarah Sense-Wilson (Oglala), UNEA volunteer and co-founder, works to make sure that no matter what is stacked against them, the complex experiences, needs and resilience of Native students are seen as strengths — not deficits — and that their cultural backgrounds are honored and celebrated. Sense-Wilson said it was powerful to watch the young people engage with the landmark process.
“To see our youth take on a role of advocates and civic leaders, it was so rewarding and really, truly inspiring. … Protecting the sacred is about honoring our ancestors, but also looking forward too.”
Ken Workman (Duwamish), the great-great-great-great grandson of Chief Sealth and a former Duwamish Tribal Council member, says spaces like líq’tәd remind us that all life is interconnected. Our ancestors live in the trees and the air we breathe. Workman says protecting spaces like líq’tәd keeps that “continuous memory” alive.
Honoring spaces like líq’tәd helps keep visible the Native people to whom a great debt is owed and who have been and always will be an intrinsic part of our community.