'I know who I am': Seattle's urban Natives tell the story of the city's first Indigenous landmark
On Oct. 16, Seattle approved Duwamish sacred site Licton Springs as an official landmark. Advocates reflect on what that recognition means to their community.
On the surface, Seattle seems rooted in its Native past. Its very name is derived from Chief Sealth, a Duwamish and Suquamish leader memorialized in high school names and bronze statues. But when it comes to officially commemorating and preserving the actual places sacred to past and present Native peoples, the city’s follow-through breaks down — especially when it comes to landmarks.
Seattle’s approach to designating landmarks follows a national pattern of communities of color often being vastly underrepresented. According to a 2016 Beyond Integrity report, 72% of the landmark nominations and designations in Seattle contain no mention of cultural significance to underrepresented communities. There are currently no Native landmarks in Seattle, and in the past potential sites with cultural significance to communities of color have struggled to get approved (as was the case for Liberty Bank, whose website notes that it was the first black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest "founded as a community response to redlining and disinvestment in Central Seattle,” which failed to gain approval and now is an affordable housing site).
But on Oct. 16, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board approved what will soon become the city’s first Native addition: Licton Springs, the site of a spring historically used for medicinal and cultural purposes by the Duwamish, located within its namesake park in North Seattle.
Before settlers arrived, what would become Seattle’s north end was a marshland. Dozens of springs spouting mineral water welled up throughout. The iron oxide spring located in Licton Springs was one. David Denny arrived at the Duwamish River in 1851, purchasing land in 1870 that included the spring. Development paved over many of the springs as time passed, but Licton Springs, also known by its Duwamish name líq’tәd, survived — although the story of its existence was disrupted for both Natives and non-Natives for decades.
For a time in the ’30s, it was used as part of a spa. Practicing cultural traditions among Native people was prohibited by law until 1978's American Indian Religious Freedom Act, but by then the spring’s story and other histories in may ways had already been pushed aside.
The movement to make the site of the spring into a landmark began almost five years ago, when Lakota activist Matt Remle first discussed it with Native elders in the city. This is the story of how it happened, in the words of some of its principal players.
Duwamish elder Tom Speer says that for many generations of Native people, education systems like residential and boarding schools broke the “intergenerational transmission of knowledge of the culture from the elders to the youths.” He says he was fortunate enough to have learned about the springs from an elder, Joe Hillaire.
Tom Speer, Duwamish elder: [Lummi sculptor] Joe Hillaire was carving a story pole — not a totem pole, a story pole — at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. A friend of mine and I were just teenagers, around 13 or 14 years old. We went to a part of the fair that was called the “Indian Village,” and it was a jumble of different cultures that somehow all fit under the umbrella of “Indians.” The original intention was that the pole would be raised on the fairgrounds, which is now Seattle Center. He would talk to us when we’d come and visit.
He talked to us about color. He’d talk about where we used to get our blue-green paint, where our yellow came from, where our red came from, and the different colors of the Indigenous palette. He told us that the red we used to have was almost like a brown. It’s from iron, and there’s a place in North Seattle called Licton Springs, and that’s where people would get that pigment. So I remembered that.
I didn’t visit Licton Springs until decades later. That memory got me curious about the condition of the place, so I eventually went to go see it. There was animal and human waste, the signs were gang-tagged, there were syringe needles in the grass and debris, and that was very upsetting. It didn’t seem right. So that was the beginning of a concern about protecting that place since it seemed to be neglected or forgotten or overlooked.
Liz Kearns, Licton Springs Community Council member: I've lived in my house for 45 years. I live a block away from the park. I once had a man call and ask me, because my name was on the park website — he wanted to know if the springs at the park were hot springs. And I was just like, "Ah, well you would've heard of us if they were."
Janice Lichtenwaldt, Licton Springs Community Council president: As just a resident who uses the park, I didn't really know the history. I knew about the Denny family a bit, but I didn't know much about the Indigenous history.
Kearns: I lead a work party in the park, and our goal is to remove nonnative invasive plants and to replant with native plants. The first thing we do at every work party is introduce ourselves and then I give a little history of the park site, starting with the Native American history and going on to the Denny family and the spa that was onsite, and then the fact that the park land was purchased by the city and made into a park.
Matt Remle, Lakota activist: My kids attended school in the Licton Springs neighborhood when they were elementary age, before it was torn down. So that park was right there and it was a place that we would frequent often. We saw this very old sign that's on their bathroom; it was kind of beat up and stuff. It said something like, "Native American Youth would come to this spring to collect red mud." But, then, the rest of the little blurb was about when the Denny Party purchased it until now. I thought, “Oh, that's weird. There's no information on it.”
I was curious. We started going back there and checking it out, started asking more questions about it from people who are Coast Salish or Duwamish, and other local tribe. ... That led me to folks like Tom and a few others who gave me that history about the site, which made it even more special and unique.
Jordan Kiel, Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board member: In my four years on the Landmarks Preservation Board, I can’t recall any [Native landmark applications other than this one]. Communities of color tend to be very underrepresented in the preservation world. Most landmarks are structures like buildings. There are definitely some landmarks out there that are parks — Volunteer Park is a really good example. But in terms of actively seeing the stream of nominations coming through the board, they’re generally structures.
Remle: When I got the application, I gave it my best shot, putting together all the historical information from tribes about traditional use. It got sent back to me with a really nice letter basically saying, "Here is a checklist of things that you need to include in the application." I won't lie — I didn't even know what the points in the checklist meant.
Speer: The average citizen, even with a college education, would really struggle with that application for preservation status.
Remle: So, honestly, I kind of put the whole project on the shelf for close to a year — which ended up being the best decision.
Last year, The Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA) began to involve students to give the landmark effort more attention. Word about Licton Springs and its story spread, and so did an interest in helping boost the attempt. One story was that of Dr. James “Jim” Zackuse, a Native doctor who healed David Denny’s daughter with mineral water from Licton Springs. Through the landmark process, descendants of Dr. Zackuse living near Licton Springs realized their relationship to him and the springs for the first time.
Cullen Zackuse, Tulalip tribe member and direct descendant of Dr. Zackuse: Tom Speer was always talking about an ancestor of mine being a part of history in Seattle. I felt like I should’ve known more, but I didn’t. Tom was the one who showed me where the spring was and how the iron oxide comes out of it, and as I’m working for Clear Sky [a Native youth program of UNEA], I started going there on trips and started doing things to make it a landmark.
Andy de los Angeles, chief of the Snoqualmie Tribe: I was around 12 years old and I ran across our Zackuse name in Emily Denny’s book Blazing the Way. Dr. Zackuse was an Indian doctor, and he did ceremonies around the 1840s, and he gathered red paint from Licton Springs. It was Emily Denny who originally wrote about the Zackuse family and a few paragraphs about Dr. Jim, describing him in the book.
It opened up my eyes about our family history — it was a book about my life, because a lot of Indians don’t know, like me, about their exact family histories. My mom didn’t know about her history either.
Sabeqwa de los Angeles, Snoqualmie Tribe communications assistant: It was last summer right after a canoe journey that my father and I had first gone out to the spring. I think Tom Speer had reached out to my dad, and then my dad said, “Hey, can you drive me to this thing?”
I didn't really know what I was walking into. I kind of grew up knowing that I had a lineage connection to [Dr. Jim Zackuse]. And I've heard stories here and there, and I've been able to piece it, too, not just from my dad, but from other tribal members who take the time to really learn that knowledge.
Sabeqwa de los Angeles: But it wasn't really until doing this project with Licton Springs that I really felt connected to him in a place.
I felt like a lot of that history that I had an attachment to was all about him being pushed out. Or him being a part of this colonial system. And so for me to learn about Licton Springs last year, I was just really excited because it was a piece of him that wasn't a part of some sort of historical oppression or anything like that. It was a part of him that was truly him, and truly a part of our culture.
On Oct 16, the landmark was approved by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. It officially includes the entire site of Licton Springs Park, “excluding the existing shelter and play equipment on the west side,” according to Sam Read, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The final steps before the site achieves official landmark status include a controls and incentives agreement, as well as an ordinance that needs approval from the Seattle City Council. But most agree that the site soon will achieve official landmark status as the hardest part — deciding whether or not the site qualifies — is done.
Remle: The protection of our sacred places is — regardless of what tribe, what geography, or wherever in the entire world — the protection of land is very core to who we are, you know?
At the same time that this was happening, our tribal fight with the Dakota Access Pipeline was happening [beginning in 2016]. Even though we identified where burial sites were and sacred sites were, that oil company came in and just desecrated all of that.
So I understand what that sense of potential loss is or the loss can be — just hearing the story from the local tribal folks that this was literally the last mineral spring or sacred site left because the rest are all paved over. They're underneath the Northgate Mall, and underneath apartments, and the college, and stuff like that. That’s even more reason to act. Those are the things we need to protect.
*Cante Remle, UNEA student: I learned how to respect other people’s sacred sites and honestly how to fight to make them sacred — I’m glad I’ve learned how to write resolutions. It’s important [to come together for sacred sites] because one tribe by itself might not have a strong enough voice to really stand up for themselves, so if other tribes came in to help that tribe, maybe their voice could get stronger.
*Akichita Takenalive, UNEA student: We can’t do this by ourselves — it would be a really big help if everyone got together.
Lichtenwaldt: At any rate, one of the things that comes up a lot when we're asking ourselves when we're sitting as a council is this: "What identifies us?"
Well, I think that question is now going to be answered. It's the springs. It's not Aurora, it's not North Seattle College, which has a huge footprint in this neighborhood. It is the spring, and it will be the spring.
Sabeqwa de los Angeles: I didn't know [before] that Seattle didn't have a landmark that was Native American. It is kind of crazy to think that there's nothing.
It was really interesting to see my father’s presence in the room during the final landmarks meeting — all he needed to say was I know who I am. I know who my ancestors are. And I know the stories. I know the history.
For me, this whole process isn't about proving. I mean, in a way it is kind of about proving that we know who we are and that we know what we're talking about when it comes to historical sites and sites used by our ancestors. But it was really nice to see him bring that together in a way that was like, “No, I don't need to prove myself to you. I know who I am.”
*These quotes are from an Oct. 26 public panel discussion at the Seattle Public Library on the effort to achieve landmark status to Licton Springs.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.