In a stand of trees a few blocks west of North Seattle College, a pool of water trickles out of a stone ring and onto mud stained a bright copper red. This is red ochre, known as líq’tәd in the Lushootseed language of the Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples who gathered at this sacred site since time immemorial for prayer, healing, and celebration.
The ever-flowing mineral water of líq’tәd is an enduring reminder that the land we live on and cherish here in Seattle was taken from peoples who faced genocide and forced relocation at the hands of our government. It’s also a reminder that the descendants of those peoples are still among us, and that they continue to face oppression and marginalization and have never been compensated for what was taken from them.
Solid Ground is on a journey to better understand our role as a nonprofit in colonialist systems that continue to oppress Indigenous peoples today. We also seek to build authentic partnerships with Indigenous communities in order to reduce the harm that we cause as an organization, help undo the erasure of Indigenous histories, and celebrate the resilience of the first peoples of Seattle and King County. To work toward these aspirations, Solid Ground’s Community Accountability Council recommended that we start by amplifying the Indigenous history of the lands we occupy as an organization, from our Giving Garden at Marra Farm and Solid Ground Transportation offices in South Park to our Wallingford offices and housing facilities at Sand Point.
We’re starting at North Seattle College, where Solid Ground ran a Regional Access Point (RAP) prior to the pandemic to help people experiencing homelessness access resources through Coordinated Entry for All (RAP services are now offered from our Wallingford headquarters). Long before white settlers arrived, this area was home to a network of red ochre springs, of which only one remains. It was a deeply sacred site for the Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples, who regularly gathered here for ceremony, spiritual renewal, and to harvest wild cranberries from nearby marshland. A sweat lodge was built nearby, and the red pigment of the springs was used for healing and to decorate longhouses and other objects.
“This is a recognized sacred site and holy ground for Coast Salish peoples. It is not manufactured or manmade,” says Sarah Sense-Wilson (Ogala), co-founder of the Seattle-based Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA). “Through oral tradition, Licton Springs has been identified as a place of gathering, healing, and ceremony.”
A youth-powered movement
But the history and spiritual significance of líq’tәd, pronounced LEE’kteed, was nearly erased after the displacement of the Duwamish more than 160 years ago, even though its name was anglicized and appropriated by the residential neighborhood developed around it, Licton Springs. One after another, all but one of the springs were paved over, and eventually few people knew about the significance of the remaining spring outside of the Indigenous communities of North Seattle.
That began to change around 2015 when Indigenous activist and author Matt Remle (Hunkpapa Lakota) learned about the spring from Ken Workman (Duwamish), a descendant of Chief Si’ahl, the tribal leader for whom Seattle was named. Remle’s children had attended school nearby, and he’d been to Licton Springs Park several times, but he told the South Seattle Emerald he had no idea that a sacred Indigenous site was hidden just beyond the park’s playground (see New signage final step in preserving legacy of Licton Springs as Indigenous landmark by Alexa Peters, 7/15/21, South Seattle Emerald).
Remle got to work trying to preserve what was left of the springs, as he’d done for other Indigenous sites elsewhere in the U.S. He sought to get the city to designate the spring as a historic landmark, but the work required proved daunting, and he eventually enlisted the help of students in the Clear Sky Native Youth Council, a UNEA program.
Over a year and half, the students learned to write resolutions, trained in public speaking, created online petitions, built partnerships with community groups, and created a full marketing campaign to try to persuade the city to designate líq’tәd as a historic landmark. Their research eventually extended well beyond the traditions of the Duwamish.
“The students also explored and learned about what is sacred within their own tribes, so it wasn’t just about Licton Springs,” Sarah says. “The project was about bringing the relevance beyond the Licton Springs neighborhood, to exploring what is sacred in their own homeland.”
The effort eventually grew to include members of the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, Suquamish, and Tulalip tribes. Finally, in 2019, the city approved the historical landmark designation for the spring, helping to protect the sacred site from future development. A carved stone marking the site was finally installed earlier this year.
For Sarah, the preservation of líq’tәd reflects resilience in Indigenous communities that transcends tribal affiliations. Many of the students who poured their energy into the effort do not have Duwamish ancestry.
“To me, this project reflected our tribal and cultural values and beliefs. It is within our cultural belief system that we take care of the earth, we take care of one another, and we take care of what we are committed to,” she says. “Our students really embraced those multiple layers of teaching and understanding. Even though it wasn’t their property, their lineage, they recognized how valuable it is nonetheless. They don’t have to have an ancestral link to the land to recognize its value and the importance of protecting it.”
But the story of líq’tәd is not just about an Indigenous spiritual site earning long-overdue recognition and protection. It’s also about the ongoing displacement, marginalization and disenfranchisement of Indigenous communities today.
That part of the story begins with the Clear Sky Native Youth Council, which was founded 14 years ago after several young people came together and gave voice to a need.
“The students and families had a deep desire to have something that they could connect with within our urban community,” Sarah says. “Some of these students came forward and requested that we start some kind of group, a club, something that was consistent and spoke to what their cultural interests were and their desire to connect with community and also have opportunities for safe spaces within a highly racist, oppressive education system.”
“It’s about providing the necessary support needed for our kids to be successful,” Sarah says. “We know our kids can be successful – there is no question about that – it’s just a matter of resources and support.” ~Sarah Sense-Wilson
The students created Clear Sky, which began offering homework help, college readiness, job training, health, basketball, and other programs out of Seattle’s Indian Heritage School, a public school where Native traditions and history were incorporated into a middle and high school curricula. The school, which happened to be located in Licton Springs, was also a center of Indigenous culture and community in North Seattle and provided an inclusive, holistic learning environment for Native youth. Started in the 1970s, it grew and flourished under the leadership of beloved Principal Robert Eaglestaff (Lakota), but the Seattle Public Schools began withdrawing support for the school after Eaglestaff’s death in the 1990s and enrollment dwindled.
In the meantime, Clear Sky and UNEA gained momentum and evolved to serve as advocates and advisors to address systemic racism in public education and empower Indigenous students to find pathways of learning to access their own cultural teachings, values and practices. And in that, it has had great success: For the last 10 years, 100 percent of students who regularly participate in Clear Sky programs graduate high school.
“It’s about providing the necessary support needed for our kids to be successful,” Sarah says. “We know our kids can be successful – there is no question about that – it’s just a matter of resources and support.”
But Clear Sky’s success has not shielded it from the displacement and marginalization Indigenous people have experienced for more than a century. First, it lost its home at Indian Heritage after the district closed and demolished the building despite the resistance of the Indigenous community, which sought to have it designated as a historic landmark. Clear Sky moved temporarily to Nathan Hale High School and was promised space in a new school built on the site of Indian Heritage – which UNEA and other Indigenous groups successfully lobbied to have named Robert Eagle Staff Middle School – but within a year the district violated its contract and evicted UNEA from the building it helped name.
“The eviction and wrongful termination of the contract was highly traumatizing, and a continuation of the historic trauma inflicted by Seattle Public Schools,” Sarah says. “Some of our kids talked about how retraumatizing it was because of their own experiences of being evicted and losing housing. The organization and the youth program were homeless for eight months.”
Sarah says that being homeless came at a high cost on an organizational and community level, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Clear Sky has since established a partnership and memorandum of understanding with North Seattle College, where the organization found a permanent home and an opportunity to begin to rebuild and regain its visibility. It also gave Clear Sky students a chance to focus on the work of preserving líq’tәd.
“The officials designation of Licton Springs as a landmark was a start, and it provided our students with an incredible wealth of knowledge and opportunities for leadership, reclaiming of identity, and building pride in the community and in themselves, ” Sarah says.
- To support the work of the Clear Sky Native Youth Council, go to the Urban Native Education Education Alliance donate webpage.
- Featured photo at top by Che Sehyun.