SEATTLE (AP) — Washington, Oregon, more than two dozen Native American and Alaska Native tribes and cultural groups from the Northwest are suing the federal government to stop the sale of the National Archives building in Seattle, a plan that would force the relocation of millions of invaluable historical records to California and Missouri.
The government is planning to sell the vast warehouse under a law aimed at unloading excess federal property, but the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Monday says the building is anything but “excess.” It contains irreplaceable documents dating to the 1840s and is used all the time for research about everything from tribal history to Japanese internment during World War II and fur seal hunts on remote Alaskan islands.
“This is the DNA of our region,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told an online news conference Monday. “These are documents that are not digitized. Moving them a thousand miles away essentially and effectively eliminates public access to these critical documents.”
The National Archives building is one of a dozen properties around the country, collectively valued at $500 million to $750 million, identified for sale by the Public Buildings Reform Board. The board initially intended to sell the properties individually, but has announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the commercial real estate market, it will offer the buildings early this year for an expedited sale as a single portfolio.
The records would be moved to National Archives facilities in Kansas City and in Riverside, California.
The Seattle building has a reported $2.4 million maintenance backlog and costs more than $350,000 a year to operate, but sits on land that would be prime for residential development, with views of the Cascade Mountains and Lake Washington.
The sale is opposed by all eight U.S. senators and many representatives from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
“The records stored in Seattle’s Federal Archives are vital to telling the story of the Pacific Northwest’s history,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the third-most-senior Democrat in the Senate, said in an emailed statement Monday. “I look forward to working with the incoming Biden-Harris Administration to explore every option available, including the appropriations process, to ensure that they remain accessible to local stakeholders.”
The lawsuit says the Seattle archives is ineligible for sale under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which exempts buildings used for research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational or conservation programs. Among other things, the lawsuit noted, the archives are used for research under federal historical preservation programs and to litigate land use, water rights and conservation issues.
News release from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum:
AG Rosenblum Sues to Save National Archives
Oregon Joins Coalition Opposing Move That Would Effectively End Regional Access to Irreplaceable Records
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has filed a lawsuit against the federal government for illegally proceeding with the sale of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in Seattle. Oregon joined a broad coalition to stop the federal government from shipping irreplaceable, un-digitized archives more than a thousand miles away to archive centers in Kansas City, Missouri and Riverside, California—effectively eliminating regional access to records essential for understanding the history of the Pacific Northwest. The coalition includes the State of Washington; twenty-nine federally recognized tribes, Alaskan tribal entities, and tribal communities from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, as well as nine community organizations, historical preservation societies and museums.
The National Archives building in Seattle hosts exclusive and un-digitized tribal and treaty records, as well as Chinese Exclusion Act case files and records regarding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The records are invaluable resources for researchers, historians and individuals seeking information about their family history and heritage. For instance, the archives include tribal and treaty records relating to the 272 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Tribal members use federal archive records to establish tribal membership, demonstrate and enforce tribal rights to fishing and other activities, trace their lineage and ancestry and access native school records. According NARA’s Seattle director, only “.001% of the facility’s 56,000 cubic feet of records are digitized and available online.”
The lawsuit, filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, 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. Further, the federal government refused to consult or cooperate with local stakeholders, including tribal governments, in making the decision to sell the property.
“The unique and invaluable historical information housed at the National Archives in Seattle is essential to the educational and research achievements of our state’s predominant research universities and organizations, as well Oregon tribes and our community members at large,” Rosenblum said.
In October 2020, the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) decided that it would sell the Archives building in Seattle early this year as part of a bundled sale along with 11 other federal properties around the country. It buried the details of this dramatic decision deep in a 74-page document on its website from that meeting. The federal government did not inform any interested stakeholders of this decision, including tribal governments or Attorneys General Offices. “We were shocked to discover the manner and timeline in which the federal government has conducted this illegal sale and were forced to file this lawsuit to compel the government to follow the law and protect the irreplaceable records that contain the DNA of our region,” Rosenblum added.
The coalition’s lawsuit asserts the National Archives building was never legally eligible for the PBRB’s accelerated sale process. 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 National Archives building is exempt from expedited sale by law because it is used for research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational and conservation programs. In other words, the Archives building legally never should have been included in the portfolio of buildings the federal government has put out for bid.
The lawsuit also alleges significant administrative procedural violations. For example, the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) failed to develop the standards, criteria and recommendations required by Congress. Additionally, the federal government failed to consult or coordinate with the tribal governments in violation of federal-tribal consultation law and policy.
The States of Washington and Oregon, twenty-nine tribes, and 9 community organizations listed below have partnered together to bring the case:
- Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation
- Confederated Tribes of the Coos Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians
- Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians
- Doyon, Ltd.
- Duwamish Tribe
- Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon
- Hoh Indian Tribe
- Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe
- Kalispel Tribe of Indians
- The Klamath Tribes
- Muckleshoot Indian Tribe
- Nez Perce Tribe
- Nooksack Indian Tribe
- Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe
- Puyallup Tribe of Indians
- Quileute Tribe of the Quileute Reservation
- Quinault Indian Nation
- Samish Indian Nation
- Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians
- Skokomish Indian Tribe
- Snoqualmie Indian Tribe
- Spokane Tribe of Indians
- Squaxin Island Tribe
- Suquamish Tribe
- Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
- Tanana Chiefs Conference
- Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska
- Upper Skagit Indian Tribe
- Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation
- American Historical Association
- Association of King County Historical Organizations
- Historic Seattle
- Chinese American Citizens Alliance
- Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI)
- OCA Asian Pacific Advocates – Greater Seattle Chapter
- Washington Trust for Historic Preservation
- Wing Luke Memorial Foundation