U.S. Interior Secretary Debra Haaland this month became the first Native American ever confirmed to a Cabinet position. She has a lot of work ahead of her undoing the harms of the previous administration. Perhaps, then, an easy win is in order. Saving the National Archives in Seattle could be it.
Under the previous administration, the federal Office of Management and Budget approved selling the archives property in northeast Seattle’s Sand Point neighborhood. The archive holds millions of historic records from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. The records cover military activity, land holdings, court filings, tax changes and census data. The archive also holds the history of 272 federally recognized tribes in the region, including original treaty documents.
It’s a treasure trove for historians, genealogists and attorneys, not to mention anyone who just cares about the past, how it informs the present and shapes the future.
If OMB sells the property, the region’s history would move more than 1,000 miles away to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and Riverside, California. Records would become all but inaccessible to the people to whom they matter most.
Years of deferred maintenance at the facility would cost $50 million or more to repair. That sounds like a great project to include in a massive infrastructure plan that President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats want to pass.
In February, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction stopping the sale, but that’s only temporary. At the time, an attorney representing the federal government said he’d know the Biden administration’s position on the archives “in a week or so.” It’s been a month, and there’s still no word. Uncertainty hangs over everything.
Time for Biden to speak up, and Haaland is well positioned to prod him.
Among the most frequently requested records at the archive are documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management. Both are part of the Interior Department, so Haaland has a stake in their disposition. More important, she can speak from lived experience how important it is to keep a people’s and a region’s history close to home.