Concerned it would threaten their cultural preservation, history and treaty rights, 40 tribes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska joined a Jan. 4 lawsuit with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to stop the federal government from selling the National Archives facility in Seattle and shipping its millions of boxes of records to California and Missouri.
The state of Oregon and nine historic preservation groups and museums also joined Ferguson’s lawsuit. The coalition filed a motion for a preliminary injunction on Jan. 8 in U.S. District Court to try to immediately stop the sale, alleging that the federal government violated conditions in place regarding such sales and neglected the importance of the records for the Northwest.
Located in Sand Point Way, the National Archives at Seattle contains records made by federal courts and agencies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
Numerous tribal leaders, historians and researchers from all four states submitted declarations in support of the January 4 motion. Tribal members wrote about using the records at Sand Point to learn family history, create tribal museums, revive their languages, discover traditional reservation burial spaces to locate a cemetery and for legal issues regarding treaty rights, natural resources and tribal enrollment.
If the sale goes forward, the federal government plans to ship the 56,000 cubic feet of records — only 0.001% of which are digitized — to facilities in Missouri and southern California, which will “effectively eliminate public access to the records,” according to a press release from Ferguson.
“It’s an incredible sorrow to me, the thought of having these records thousands of miles away from the people who made them,” said Ryan Boothe, a history instructor at Washington State University in Vancouver and a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “It just seems like another blow to tribal people.”
In 2019, the federal Public Buildings Reform Board identified the Seattle Archives facility among a dozen federal properties as “High Value Assets.” PBRB wants to sell them to a real estate developer.
In January last year, the Office of Management and Budget approved the sale. Ferguson’s office wrote a letter to PBRB asking them to reconsider and requested public records related to the sale, which the agency never provided, according to a press release from Ferguson. In response, Ferguson’s office filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in August and September.
The January lawsuit is intended to stop PBRB’s plan to sell the facility in early 2021 — a plan that Ferguson’s office only became aware of in November 2020 while conducting unrelated research. PBRB claimed the covid-19 pandemic, and its impacts on the real estate market, justified an expedited sale. PBRB did not consult Ferguson’s office, tribes or stakeholders about the decision.
The archives are a treasure trove of local history. As well as tribal records, they include records relating to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and over 50,000 files documenting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Boothe used the archives to research Native American veterans of WWI and to uncover the stories of Indian boarding school students at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. One student, Boothe learned, fought in WWI, returned, got a law degree and eventually sued the school for waste, fraud and abuse. He did not win the case, but achieved some reforms.
To his surprise, Boothe also found letters from his own great-great-grandfather and his great-grandmother, who attended the school. Encountering the physical link to his own past was a moving experience that corroborated family stories.
“To lose that facility in Seattle is a break with our past in a very physical way,” Boothe said.
The archives contain a huge number of tribal treaty records and others maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that “go back to pretty much the beginning of federal presence here in this area,” said Alexandra Harmon, professor emerita of American Indian Studies and History at the University of Washington, who used them to research her history books on Native peoples in the Northwest.
They are primary sources detailing the ways federal officials and tribes negotiated treaties and land claims, records of tribal council meetings, of schools and other programs the BIA oversaw. They can tell us how Native people viewed events and what they were trying to do throughout history, Harmon said. “In many cases these are the only records that Indian people, that tribes have, of what has happened.”
In the Seattle area, the Duwamish Tribe relies on the archives for its 40-year quest for federal recognition and to preserve its history, according to a declaration included in the motion written by Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen. “Records currently located in the National Archives, but not yet reviewed by the Tribe, offer critical evidence to finally convince the U.S. government to recognize our existence,” Hansen wrote.
Leonard Forsman, Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, remembers researching Suquamish history in the archive, when he was a student, for the tribe’s effort to build an archive and eventually a museum. He researched the experiences of Suquamish elders forced to attend the Tulalip Boarding School as children in the 1900s — an effort to assimilate them and strip them of their culture.
For the Suquamish, records at Sand Point helped tell their story and dispel “racist opinions about who we were, who we should be.” They helped the tribe educate non-Natives living on the reservation in north Kitsap County about the tribe’s right to self-governance. “We were able to tell people about who we were, what happened to us and why we were going to move forward with what our treaty rights were.”
When tribes have legal questions or disputes, key evidence is often found in treaties and other historical documents. Commonly, “history is essential to resolving those issues,” said Harmon, who also spent 15 years working as an attorney for tribal governments in Western Washington.
Tribes use the BIA records and court records to provide evidence in ongoing legal cases about tribal treaty rights, including rights to land, fishing, hunting and natural resources.
“In order to defend a case or bring a case forward, you need the background to be able to prove your case,” said Thomas Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation. “And these records are key in a lot of what’s happening in the Northwest now with treaty rights and water rights.”
Disputes about tribal fishing rights — with huge implications for tribal sovereignty — were resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, following the Boldt decision of 1974 that affirmed fishing rights for treaty tribes and their right to 50% of the yearly catch, Harmon noted. The key question in the cases was what precisely tribes and the regional governor intended in 1850 when they signed treaties giving up Native residence in exchange for fishing rights — and the answers lay in historic records.
When the Samish Nation was trying to re-establish its off-reservation fishing rights, the tribe learned it had been removed from a list of federally-recognized tribes due to a clerical error. It took the tribe 27 years of litigation to regain the recognition. If the tribe hadn’t had access to the archives, “I don’t know that we would have been able to put it together,” Wooten said. And if the archives were in California or Missouri, “It might have been another 27 years on top of that.”
The Samish Nation is currently involved in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case over treaty hunting rights.
Ferguson’s lawsuit claims that the National Archives facility cannot be sold under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which exempts the sale of federal properties if they are used for “research in connection with federal agricultural, recreational or conservation programs.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the federal government failed to consult with tribes and other stakeholders, which violates rules governing federal-tribal consultation, and that the OMB violated administrative procedures by neglecting to establish “standards, criteria and recommendations” required by Congress.
“These days it’s pretty easy to consult with tribes,” said Leonard Forsman, who said there was no meaningful effort to do so.
“To be blunt, these federal agencies don’t give a damn about their legal obligations or what these documents mean to our region,” Ferguson is quoted saying in the press release from his office.
Moving the archives would be harmful for scholarly research about the history of Native people in the Pacific Northwest, Harmon said, of which there is surprisingly little published.
Students who want to get an advanced degree in history, anthropology or geography, for example, need to write a book-length manuscript based on original research, Harmon said. “If the focus is on this region or Alaska, they’re going to want to spend a lot of time at Sand Point in those archives there,” Harmon said. “That’s just unavoidable.” Most graduate students simply couldn’t afford to fly to California or the Midwest to do this research.
“I think just about every Native person across the Northwest and Alaska could find their own family stories in those documents,” Boothe said.
Wooten of the Samish Nation knows he can go to the records and research his family history, on both the Native and settler sides. “It does tie you back to your ancestors and makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” he said. “And sometimes we need that.”
The Samish Nation is producing a history book with the help of the archives, said Wooten, “so our history isn’t lost and is somewhat accessible.”
He is chairman of a tribe that is expanding economically and re-acquiring its traditional homelands. The ability of the Samish to live in and govern their traditional territory is “critical to self-determination,” he said.
“In order to be a government, you need to have land,” he said. “Sometimes you have to prove the connections, and you can’t do it without the history that’s there at the archives.”
Read more in the Jan. 20-26, 2021 issue.