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  • Ellen Mirro

Líq’tәd Springs & the Politics of Historic Preservation

This month marks one year since líq’tәd (Licton) Springs was designated a City of Seattle Landmark. In honor of this anniversary, and to understand the significance of this landmark status, we look back at the history and politics of its designation.

Seattle is the only major city in the United States with a name derived from an Indigenous language. Images of Chief Seattle (Si’ahl) can be seen on every piece of city correspondence, at the top corner of each municipal website. But this ostensible honor is not without its own complications. Accounts differ as to whether Si’ahl was adamantly against the new city being named after him (as it went against Duwamish tradition of not speaking the names of the dead), if he was initially opposed but then came around to the idea, or was instead honored by the act. On the other hand, líq’tәd, meaning red ochre or red paint, is unambiguously rooted in Indigenous history that predates colonization. “Licton” remains one of the only Lushootseed-derived words existing in the mainstream vernacular of the city.

Located in North Seattle, just west of North Seattle College and Northgate Mall, the block-sized park includes several iron oxide and magnesium sulfate springs. A casual visitor to the park, walking a winding trail, could almost literally stumble upon a granite font exuding a trickle of rusty-red water. The spot is marked by a much-graffitti’ed sign showing a white woman in a turn-of-the-20th-century bathing costume, with two sentences about the spring’s history as a “unique recreational spot and a commercial crossroads.” In spite of this unassuming presentation, the springs have been a sacred site for Coast Salish peoples for centuries, long before the arrival of white settlers. Tribes held sweat lodge ceremonies, marriages, and other cultural events here. “Red-ochre” refers to the rusty crimson pigment produced by iron oxide, which was collected and used for ceremonial, decorative, medicinal, and trading purposes. Indigenous use of the spring is believed to go back 1,300 years.

Colonization upended the traditional use of the springs and devastated Native people’s access to it. The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott effectively marked the official transfer of 54,000 acres of land, including the young city of Seattle and points north, from governance by Coast Salish tribes to the United States. In 1870 prominent settler David Denny purchased a 160-acre land claim that included the mineral springs. He built a summer cabin on the land, and the medicinal properties of the waters soon gained a reputation among white Seattleites. In 1900, the spring waters were diverted to feed a sewer addition, and in 1909 the surrounding area was subdivided as a streetcar suburb. In 1919 the waters were routed back towards Green Lake, through submerged underground pipes, further altering natural conditions. By 1935 the site had been converted into a health spa that sold the mineral water by the bottle until 1951. Licton Springs Park was established in 1960, although due to funding issues, the site went undeveloped until 1968. A 1996 initiative protected the park from being turned into a parking lot or apartment building, although the city could still have otherwise altered the park at will.

The neighborhood of Licton Springs has been home to the American Indian Heritage Program and Indian Heritage School for the past thirty years. In 1990, the program moved into Woodrow Wilson Middle School. At its height the Indian Heritage Program comprised a middle- and high school for Native and non-Native students taught by Native teachers, and boasted a stellar graduation rate. After years of dwindling enrollment and administrative issues with the school district, the school was relocated to rented space in Northgate Mall in 2013, despite an outcry from the program’s students and supporters. Licton Springs K-8 opened in a new building in 2016, next door to the new Robert Eagle Staff Middle School (named for the late principal of the Indian Heritage School). Both schools, on the site of the demolished Wilson Middle School, enfolded elements of the Indian Heritage Program. Operating from Eagle Staff Middle School, the nonprofit Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA), offered after-school cultural and athletic programs to Indigenous youth. The UNEA’s Clear Sky Youth Leadership Council and its sports program, Native Warrior Athletics, were key forces in the landmarking of líq’tәd Springs, located just a block north of the schools. In 2019 the group issued a resolution that the site be designated a city landmark:

Whereas the City of Seattle was built upon the homelands, villages, gathering and sacred sites of the Duwamish People; and whereas Licton Springs is a x̌áʔx̌aʔ’ali (Sacred Place) a place of spiritual power. This has been a Duwamish religious and holy site since time immemorial. The Springs are a treasured curative resource for the Duwamish Tribe ancestors. […]

[T]he UNEA, NWA, and Clear Sky Leadership Council hereby declare its full support to uphold our commitment to advocate, and promote cultural preservation, restoration, and protection of sacred sites and the designation of Licton Springs Park as a designated historic landmark protected under City of Seattle Landmark Preservation ordinance.

The young activists from UNEA teamed up with Lakota activist Matt Remle and Duwamish historian Tom Speer, who had attempted to nominate the site in 2016, but decided to put the project on hold to gain a better understanding of the landmarks process. Throughout the process, the team focused on maintaining ownership of the process by centering Native voices, history, and labor. For months, UNEA students reached out to tribal elders throughout the region, collecting their memories and passed-down stories about the site. When Remle and Speer presented the nomination of líq’tәd Springs to the Landmarks Preservation Board in October 2019, Remle introduced the coalition as representing “members from the Tulalip, Snoqualmie, Muckleshoot Tribes and other Native American tribes, Seattle residents, Native youth and elders, historians, and, most importantly, individuals whose ancestors have been directly tied to líq’tәd Springs for generations.” The board unanimously voted to designate líq’tәd Springs as a Landmark.

The designation of Licton Springs marks the first time Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board has landmarked a site of major cultural significance to the Indigenous people of this area. The well-known totem pole in Pioneer Square is protected as part of that neighborhood’s national and local preservation district, but the artifact itself was stolen from a Tlingit village by a delegation of prominent white Seattleites, dispatched by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce on a goodwill tour of Alaska. Similarly, although a statue in the Denny Triangle commemorates Chief Si’ahl as the city’s namesake, this work was produced by a white artist, commissioned by the city government, and erected at the convergence point of the land claims of three prominent settlers. Both monuments are more about Native people than of them, and serve a white gaze. This was the case with the early 20th century suburban destination of Licton Springs, which spun a romantic narrative of a bygone Native past to sell real estate and bottled water to white people. In his history of Native Seattle, historian Coll Thrush argues “[the] Licton Springs place-story suggested that there was very little room for indigenous people—alive or undead—in modern Seattle. Their legends and place-names, on the other hand, made great copy.”

As the story of líq’tәd Springs demonstrates, historic preservation is a process fraught with political conflict. If we see the landmarks ordinance and process as a means to inscribe the history of the built environment, then the question of what and whom is left out or underrepresented rises to the fore. Settler privilege is written into the ordinance itself. In order to be designated a City of Seattle Landmark, a building or site must meet at least one of five criteria: association with a significant event (criterion A) or individual (B), close association with a significant aspect of cultural heritage (C), being an outstanding example of an architectural style (D) or a certain architect (E), or being a prominent visual feature of the neighborhood (F). A landmark nomination report typically relies on archival research to get a full historic overview of a site. This automatically privileges the institutions and individuals that make it into newspapers, history books, genealogical databases. Seattle’s oldest confirmed house was constructed in 1882, meaning that no building in the city of Seattle has a history exceeding 150 years.

The birth of Seattle’s historic preservation program—the establishment of the Pioneer Square-Skid Road National Historic District—had the effect of fracturing and further erasing the city’s Native presence. After the end of World War II, Skid Road (the area at the western end of Yesler Way), was home to the largest and densest population of Native people in the city. In the 1960s Pioneer Square became the target of urban renewal campaigns. While urban renewal had connotations of removing blight and improving safety, the term tended to be code for tearing down high-density neighborhoods with large minority populations. A coalition of architects, businesses, and civic clubs rallied to preserve the Pioneer Square area, and in 1970 the National Historic District was established, the first of its kind in the nation. The Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, Beaux-Arts pergola, and, yes, the stolen totem pole were all protected under the new preservation guidelines; the residents of the neighborhood were not. Dozens of worker hotels were shuttered and most of the Native-centric bars closed, decimating both the housing stock and social centers for Native inhabitants. The historic preservation campaign resulted in an influx of galleries, boutiques, and tourist activities, but by the mid-1970s nearly 60% of Pioneer Square’s residents had been displaced from the neighborhood. Those who remained in the neighborhood, frequently too poor or too ill to move elsewhere, were made into a sort of set-dressing: former Mayor Wes Uhlman and Seattle personality Bill Speidel would lead visitors through Skid Road, presenting the local “seedy characters” as an essential element of the area, props lending “authenticity” to the city’s new tourist destination.

In August 2019, a month before the landmarks board meeting where the líq’tәd Springs was first presented, Seattle Public Schools severed ties with the UNEA, citing issues with paperwork and communication. As a result, UNEA’s was no longer able to offer programs from Robert Eagle Staff Middle School. UNEA has since found a home base at North Seattle College, which allows the group to remain close to líq’tәd Springs, and a lawsuit for lack due process is pending against the school district. A month after the springs were landmarked, the school district announced that Licton Springs K-8 School would be relocated from the site of the former Wilson Middle School to the refurbished Webster School in Ballard. This marks the first time in 30 years that the neighborhood will be without a school focusing on Indigenous culture and the specific needs of Native students. To add to the irony, Licton Springs will be moving away from its namesake site and into a building that for decades housed the Nordic Heritage Museum.

When Chief Si’ahl died—only 15 years after the Denny Party landed at Alki—his death went unmentioned in the newspapers of the city that took his name. His name made “great copy” but his life, its end, went unremarked. The fracturing of the Native community in Pioneer Square is a dubious result of the advent of the civic historic preservation program. Will the landmarking of líq’tәd Springs herald a more equitable approach to preserving cultural sites in the region? May it be so. But at the same time Seattle must, in dollar and in policy, support Native youth, education, health, housing, and art. Even more important, as we can see from the success of the youth-led coalition fighting for recognition of a sacred site, Seattle must let Native people lead and direct that effort. Historic Preservation means little if it discounts, harms, or wrests the narrative from those whose history it is.

–Katherine Jaeger

Sources & Additional Reading:

Crosscut’s coverage of the landmarking process, before designation, and reflecting on the meaning of its designation

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