Featured image (a group of people pose at Licton Springs) by Che Sehyun.

New Signage Final Step in Preserving Legacy of Licton Springs as Indigenous Landmark

by Alexa Peters

Nearly two years since earning a cultural landmark designation from the City of Seattle, Licton Springs Park, known as líq’tәd (pronounced LEE’kteed) in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish people, will have new signage installed on July 14 that will explain the cultural significance of this North Seattle site, in particular its ochre-colored spring, to the region’s history and Indigenous community.

At first glimpse, Licton Springs is clearly more than your average water source: bright copper-orange mineral-rich water pools within a ring of concrete hidden amongst the trees. This spring is connected to channels that flow about a mile southward from present-day 97th Street to Green Lake and is part of a larger network of mineral springs that once existed throughout the region and were used by members of several local Indigenous tribes for healing and other cultural practices.

“This whole area from what is now Robert Eagle Staff, Licton Springs Park, all the way up to Northgate Mall, North Seattle College, and up towards Thornton Creek was a whole network of healing springs and other mineral springs,” said Matt Remle, a local Indigenous activist and member of the Lakota tribe. “What makes Licton so significant is that it’s the last one. [The rest have] all been paved over.” 

Remle was instrumental in the process of getting Licton Springs a cultural landmark designation. But as recently as 2015, he wasn’t even aware of the site’s significance to the Duwamish and other tribes. 

“My kids used to attend the old Wilson Pacific School, which is now the Robert Eagle Staff Heritage School, and they used to have an Indian-led program [Urban Native Education Alliance’s Clear Sky Youth Council] there and that program was located up near Licton Springs Park,” he said. “Ironically, we have gone to Licton Springs a lot, but actually I didn’t even know about the springs. We never got past the playground.”

One day, Remle asked his friend Ken Workman, a descendant of Chief Si’ahl — for whom Seattle is named — and a retired member of the Duwamish Tribal Council, about local sacred sites for regional tribes and discovered the sacred history of this hidden spring. 

Immediately, Remle — who has a long history of advocating for the protection of sacred Indigenous lands, including the land at Standing Rock Indian Reservation during the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline — wondered if this North Seattle site was protected.

“I know how we’ve dealt with these issues back in our homelands in the Dakotas where our sacred sites get desecrated or destroyed or threatened, especially if we don’t have any sort of historic [designations] attached to them,” said Remle. “So, I asked Ken if they had any sort of protections or acknowledgment of this site.”

When Workman said no and asked for help — Remle jumped into action, though he acknowledges this was one of the more complex advocacy projects he’s ever taken on due to the arduous and often convoluted process of historical preservation. But he felt a key to the project’s success was involving the tribal youth from Clear Sky Youth Council, including his own kids, in the process of learning about and preserving Licton Springs.

“The whole mood of everything changed as soon as we included the youth,” he said. Youth activists learned about the process during workshops, made videos, started petitions, and connected with elders about the importance of the Licton Springs site. “Not only did they learn these tools, but they got a sense of empowerment,” said Remle. “I’ve heard some of them talk about feeling good and empowered that they helped out another tribe or [that] they are able to make a difference with their community.”

This five-year grassroots effort involving Remle, Workman, leaders from other local tribes, and the youth activists, culminated in the official designation of Licton Springs as a cultural landmark in 2019, making it the “first known landmark designation in Seattle for a Native site or cultural place,” according to The Seattle Times. Now, the cultural signage will represent the final step in preserving the history and legacy of this site for years to come.

“What it means is that it’s okay to be Native American again,” said Workman. “It’s okay for people to remember that there were people here before 1851 when the Denny family landed over here on Alki.”

For the actual design of the signs, Remle tapped local tribal leaders, who collaborated to find language that best represented Licton Springs’ intertribal history — how it officially sits on Duwamish territory but has served all the regional tribes for approximately 300 years.

“The Muckleshoot, the Snoqualmie, the Duwamish — we all cooperated in this thing along with Matt; he’s Lakota. We all worked in harmony,” said Workman, who represented the Duwamish and worked closely with other tribal leaders on the signs. “Nothing political about this, we just want to get the best representation that we can.”

Collectively, it was decided that the signs would be in English. They also decided to carve the history of the spot into a specially chosen rock, which Workman says has hefty symbolism as a descendent of Chief Si’ahl. 

“The sign is in English and it kind of describes the site itself, but for me the most important aspect of the signage is the rock that it’s carved in,” said Workman. He describes a speech his great-great-great-great-grandfather Chief Si’ahl gave in 1853 that ultimately said: “[W]e’re all part of nature and that everything around us holds memories, including the rocks.”

A retired Boeing Flight Operations Engineer, Workman says he tends to approach things from a scientific perspective and finds uncanny resonance in the fact that the rock the tribes chose to mark Licton Springs is made up in large part of silicon, the same material used in computer chips, where the memory of computers is stored.

This connection made Workman wonder if there were multiple meanings to be found in Chief Si’ahl’s long ago words. “Is this possible that this man that was born in 1786 or so would have the knowledge that our memories are retained in the rocks?” he said. 

For his part, Remle is hopeful the new signage will help secure the memory of this spot and contribute to a heightened awareness of local Native Americans and their culture. Remle says the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, and Snoqualmie tribes are also working with the City to install more signage with even more historical information — as well as traditional Native art pieces — at Licton Springs. 

These local tribes and the City have also been discussing other potential Native cultural sites that need protecting. The conversations have brought up differences in cultural worldviews, he said. 

“The [City] brought up the fact that they typically only landmark structures. I found that fascinating because [Natives believe] land needs to be protected in the same way that some old library or whatever does. We need to really look at the history of land use and at what communities value,” said Remle. 

Following the installation of the new signage by the City, organizers — including Remle and members of the Clear Sky Youth Council who were involved with the landmarking process — have planned a small free ceremony open to the public to celebrate on Tuesday, August 3 at 5 p.m. 

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article stated that Chief Si’ahl gave a speech in 1887. This article was updated on 07/20/2021 with the correct year of 1853.

Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.

📸 Featured image by Che Sehyun.

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