Indigenous landscape designer Tim Lehman helps move a master plan and a mission forward.
By Lisa Owens Viani
After Native Americans occupied Fort Lawton—today part of Seattle’s Discovery Park—in a peaceful protest in the early 1970s, the city negotiated a long-term leaseback of 20 acres of the 534-acre site with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. “The land was supposed to be given back to the local tribe from which it was taken, but that didn’t really happen,” says Meghan Jernigan, a traditional medicine program director with United Indians, which led the protest. “There wasn’t a lot of political support, but a growing, cross-cultural coalition made this space thrive and allowed for development of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.”
Since then, the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center and its surrounding forest and wetlands have served as an important resource for Native Americans of all ages in the Seattle area. The center offers events, Indigenous art, programs on teaching traditional medicine, social and community services, and an indoor–outdoor preschool.
In 2021, Tim Lehman, a landscape designer of Northern Arapaho descent, was hired by the Indigenous women–led Na’ah Illahee Fund, which supports the regeneration of Indigenous communities, to improve drainage conditions around three detention ponds on the Daybreak Star property. In the process, he found himself creating a “loose” master plan for the site, which includes an existing sweat lodge, a smoke pit, and an outdoor classroom.
The most meaningful development, he says, has been working with Jernigan and other community members to restore the surrounding wetlands and forest. “I get to help steward the land our ancestors fought hard for,” says Lehman, who is also a lecturer in the University of Washington’s landscape architecture program.
Over the past two years, Lehman and members of the local Indigenous community, along with groups such as the Green Seattle Partnership, have removed thousands of invasive yellow flag irises from wetland areas and replaced them with native ferns, as well as camas and wapato bulbs, important traditional foods. More than 10,000 plants, including salal berry, elderberry, and salmonberry, and trees including willow and alder, have been planted around the ponds or as part of a foraging forest and medicinal garden. Shanoa Pinkham, the Yahowt foods and lands restoration coordinator with Na’ah Illahee, says many of the plants have anti-inflammatory properties; at a recent workshop, cedar was used to make a chest rub.
“It’s been an honor to learn more about the plant medicines,” Pinkham says. “I want to hand that knowledge down to the next generation.”
For tribal members, all plants are understood to be relatives, Jernigan explains, and a great deal of thought goes into where each species should be planted and why. “We ask, does this plant relative naturally inhabit this space? Where will it thrive, under what conditions, and who does this plant need to be coplanted with?” As the seasons and the climate change, she says, community members learn more about caring for the land, lessons that are passed on to the children attending preschool at Daybreak Star.