Washington AG Bob Ferguson hosts public hearing on Sale of National Archives in possible huge hit to Pacific Northwest History and Culture

Attorney General Bob Ferguson held a remote public meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, so the public could share their comments on plans by the federal government to sell Seattle’s National Archives building and move the records more than a thousand miles away.

The public hearing is part of a motion filed January 8th by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a legal coalition of 40 tribes, states, and community organizations for preliminary injunction to halt the federal government’s planned sale of the National Archives building in Seattle. The motion asserts the sale violates the conditions Congress placed on agencies’ ability to sell federal properties on an expedited basis and fails to appropriately account for the records’ importance to the Pacific Northwest region, and includes 586 pages of declarations from tribal officials, heads of community organizations and historians from across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, as well as 79 declarations include deeply personal stories of connection to the archives and statements of outrage against “cultural erasure.”

For those not familiar, the Seattle archives contain many records essential to memorializing Cascadia’s history, including tens of thousands of records related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, records of the internment of Japanese Americans, and tribal and treaty records of federally recognized tribes throughout the Northwest. Researchers, historians, genealogists and students routinely use these records, and they are the only way to research many records in person.

The sale could prove disastrous, and if the National Archives were moved, any First Nation, genealogist, historian researching the treaties and logs of earlier generations, would have to travel thousands of miles for even a brief glimpse.

The closure and sale of the National Archive building was first set in October of 2020, by the outgoing Trump administration as a swipe to local governments it had found to be combative in earlier confrontations over Black Lives Matter protests and the use of federal authorities in dealing with the protests. The federal government did not hold any meetings of its own in the Pacific Northwest, and did not consult with state, local, or tribal leaders in the region prior to announcing its decision to sell the Archives facility. This is a very big deal because, many of the tribal treaties and maps are the only ones in existence, and also that the federal government ignored consulting with tribal officials despite policies requiring such consultation.

“The federal government continues its complete indifference for the communities, tribes and individuals impacted by its plan to sell the National Archives facility and export archival records out of the region, the bare minimum American taxpayers should expect is the ability to provide public comment before bearing the brunt of important government actions that cannot be undone. Unfortunately, in this matter, the federal government utterly failed to meet that low bar, which is why my office is forced to do it for them. I’m inviting Washingtonians to tell the federal government what this building, and the millions of records it houses, means to them and their communities.”

Bob Ferguson, Washington State Attorney General.

The National Archives building in Seattle is a very significant regional site for historical records and cultural records. It provides public access to permanent records created by courts and federal agencies throughout Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This includes all of the records relating to the 272 federally recognized tribes, tribal incorporation, BIA, Indian Schools, and other agencies dealing with Cascadian First nations. The facility also maintains 50,000 files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, as well as
some records related to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

The Nez Perce are among 29 tribal governments, nine other organizations and the state of Oregon joining the lawsuit.

With the sale, nearly 1 million boxes and numerous other archival records will be moved to storage in Kansas City and Riverside, California. The move to sell the National Archives, and move their offices, had not been announced publicly, but Ferguson announced on December 4th that his office had uncovered the move buried in a 74-page meeting minutes document from October. During the October meeting, the PBRB disclosed that it would move to immediately sell the Archives facility, along with a “portfolio” of other federal properties, in early 2021. In addition Ferguson’s office has also filed for four lawsuits seeking to access records around the decision.

“It’s so frustrating that, candidly,” Ferguson said in a press conference announcing the lawsuit, “a bunch of federal bureaucrats 3,000 miles away are pushing this through without any consultation with tribes, without public input, ignoring their own laws and processes.”

Here are a few examples that show the breadth of the concern about the sale:

  • A member of the Klamath Tribes and history teacher wrote: “The relocation of the Archives away from the Pacific Northwest would be equivalent to someone removing a sacred photo album that has been passed down through generations from one’s home. It does not mean that the family photo album would not be safe, but it would no longer be accessible to enjoy and share among the family. The chance to come together and look at the album and hear stories and learn collectively would be lost.”
  • An enrolled Tlingit tribal member began researching in 2015 and wrote, “I opened the file and looked. Tears came, for I was staring into my father’s face. He was 23, about to go volunteer in China with the Chinese Air Force, and become a mechanic for the Flying Tigers. This was 2015, just before Father’s Day, 100 years since his birth, and 50 years since he had died.”
  • Cathy Lee, the president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Seattle wrote about volunteers’ efforts to index the Chinese Exclusion Act files, “There are still thousands of files to review. If the Chinese Exclusion Act records were moved elsewhere, this effort to preserve and index the Chinese Exclusion Act files is at serious risk of never being completed.”
  • Delano Saluskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation, wrote that the Archives became a key tool in legal challenges regarding the Yakama Nation’s land ownership: “Enrolled Yakama Members researching their ancestors and their lands will have to overcome significant financial hurdles to access their records into the future. Given the United States’ significant record management failures in the past, we are concerned that the transfer of these records will result in further misplaced Yakama Nation documents that may never be found again.”
  • Donald Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, wrote the archives contain the culture of his tribe along with records and documents: “Our way of life goes beyond just the physical world we live in and interact with, beyond our reservation, water, and natural resources. We need access to our songs and ceremonies to reconnect with our traditions, our ancestors, our way of life, and the world around us.”
  • Brian Carter, the executive director of 4Culture, a Seattle non-profit that organizes programs to study cultural history in King County, wrote: “As the largest public cultural funding agency in the State with a stated commitment to racial equity, we oppose this move toward cultural erasure, especially for communities whose histories are the most suppressed and least documented and interpreted.”
  • Marcellus Turner, chief librarian for the Seattle Public Library, wrote, “People from marginalized groups who are not well-resourced will be further marginalized as they will not be able to afford travel expenses or, barring that, research or copy fees. For others — students, new media, authors, professor and amateur historians, genealogists, etc. — removal of these records to a distant region will have a chilling effect on research and, therefore, on our collective ability to understand and connect with our past.”
  • Ken House, former senior archivist at the Seattle Archives wrote, “During my time working at the National Archives, I worked with a number of researchers who were homeless, including veterans, and some who were living in their cars in the NARA parking lot while doing research. Most of these were attempting to establish their right to benefits or redress harms done to them by the federal government, their tribe, or others.”
  • Andrew Fisher, a historian, wrote that he once spent a total of seven months working at the archives on behalf of the Yakama Nation. He wrote, “There is great value in being able to sit and browse through boxes and folders by hand. Many of the discoveries a historian makes in the archives are serendipitous, as pieces of evidence crop up unexpectedly in folders where you would not necessarily have looked for them, and you begin to develop a sense of patterns and of how different parts of the collection relate to others.”
  • Robert Kentta, a council member and treasurer of the Siletz Tribe in Oregon, noted the tribe had spent $1 million and hundreds of hours at the archives to compile “the history of all these component tribes and bands and individuals, and to try to create a comprehensible and comprehensive history of the Siletz Tribe and its members.” He wrote, “It would be impossible to complete the research that needs to be done by the Siletz Tribe, if these records were moved.”

Ferguson’s lawsuit says that the National Archives building in Sand Point was never legally eligible for the Public Buildings Reform Board’s (PBRB) quickened sale process because of it’s cultural importance, specifically relating a legal requirement of federal programs, and also fialing to consult with tribal governments in violation of consultation laws and policy. The law granting the PBRB authority to sell these federal properties specifically excludes buildings used for “research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational or conservation programs.” The archive building therefor should be exempt from the porfolio they had put together.

The PBRB has also failed to be forthcoming in documents requested, and Ferguson has had to file three separate freedom of information act requests to get even basic paperwork from the agency. At one point they had tried to demand $65,000 from taxpayers to “redact” all the sensitive information, though it was later dropped.

With the public hearing, the next state becomes a series of lawsuits and injunctions to see if the sale can be halted.

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