About 10 people held signs, such as “Tribal records are sacred,” outside of the National Archives at Seattle on Tuesday, doing what they could to call attention to the stunning announcement two weeks ago that the facility could be closed.
Inside, leaders from the National Archives, headquartered in College Park, Maryland, met with local tribal leaders about their concerns over historical records that could be moved as far away as Missouri and California.
At the end of the short-notice meeting, Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe in Kingston, didn’t sound optimistic about how it all went. His take-away: “Well, certainly frustrated.”
The tribes had never been consulted about the closure, nor had there been any sort of hearings about a facility that holds 1 million boxes of federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest. These include military, land, court, tax and census records.
For the 272 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the facility also contains important treaty and historical documents.
The event with the tribes had been described by the archives as “an outreach meeting.”
That didn’t include a discussion of keeping the facility in this area.
As one of the spokesmen for the agency said, “The decisions have been made.” What was now left to do was “how to mitigate the impact,” the spokesman said, of moving all those records to new locations in Southern California and Kansas City, Missouri.
The archives said the meeting was closed to the public and the media.
Rhonda Farrar, of Kent, a frequent visitor to research her family’s Chinese and tribal heritage, had learned of the meeting because she is such a frequent visitor. She hastily organized others to show up for a protest.
She arrived in dress consisting of a traditional cedar hat, adorned with feathers, abalone shells and feathers, and a red poncho.
“It’s ridiculous that these records be split up between Missouri and California,” she said. “People need to have those record where they can access them.”
The 73-year-old building, which sits on 10 acres, is slated for closure by a little-known federal panel charged with trimming federal properties deemed excess.
The five-person Public Buildings Reform Board said the building needed too much “deferred maintenance.” It was better, said the board, to sell the acreage to housing developers so it could “generate the highest and best value.”
After the closure was announced, all senators from Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho, and eight of the 10 Washington state representatives to Congress, signed a letter stating the recommendation to close the archives “was flawed” and should be rejected.
About 20 tribal representatives were at the 1.5 hour meeting, according to those present.
John Hollowed, legal adviser to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, was one of those attending.
“Everything of value to the tribes has been taken away by the federal government. Their land, their right to fish, and the worst travesty was taking away their kids,” he said, referring to the 100-year-old practice beginning in the 1860s of taking Native American children from their families to send to government-run boarding schools.
Hollowed found it hard to believe the archives would be able to digitize all those tribal records so they could be available to anyone with a computer.
“It’s the proverbial bait-and-switch,” he said. “Trust me says the federal government to the tribes. Digitizing might take 100 or 200 years.”
Hollowed said a simple solution before moving the documents was to digitize them first. “If they want to take 100 years, let them,” he said.
“We understood the folks in that room, even though they’re folks from (Washington) D.C., are not necessarily decision makers,” said Joel Moffett, natural resources policy coordinator for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. “They’re just following orders.”
So, he said, “All the tribes are well versed in D.C. politics, in state politics. We know how to put pressure. We’ll work that avenue.”
Something the tribes and those opposing the closure have is a bit of time.
The archives said that it will take 1 ½ years to sell the property and is requesting to stay there for three more years after the sale.
The coming presidential election is what would help the tribes the most in keeping the archives here, Moffett said.
“Frankly, it’s going to take an administration change,” he said.