Tribes, states sue to block sale of National Archives building in Seattle

SEATTLE (AP) — More than two dozen Native American and Alaska Native tribes and cultural groups from the Northwest, along with the states of Washington and Oregon, 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 Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as is the Tanana Chiefs Conference from Interior Alaska.

The government is planning to sell the vast archives warehouse under a law aimed at unloading excess federal property, but the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Jan. 4 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 Alaska islands.

“This is the DNA of our region,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson told an online news conference Jan. 4. “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 federal 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 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 U.S. House members from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The lawsuit says the Seattle archives is not eligible for sale under a federal law that 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.

Talmage Hocker, a Kentucky commercial real-estate developer appointed to the Public Buildings Reform Board by President Donald Trump, claimed the building doesn’t get a lot of visitors. “It can become a part of the community, as opposed to what it is today,” he said.

Documents at the building include old property, military service and marriage records, court cases, pre-statehood census records from Alaska villages, tribal rolls and treaties, and records of timber sales. There are 50,000 files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited the presence of Chinese laborers in the U.S. from 1882 until 1943, including photos and interrogations of Chinese immigrants.

Native American tribes have used the archives to win federal recognition, to establish their right to hunt and fish in their traditional lands, and to verify their oral traditions. The government’s failure to consult with the tribes before deciding to sell the building violated federal policies, the lawsuit said.

The files also include key records from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World II — including documents that showed the National Archives building itself sits on land owned for decades by a family of Japanese American farmers, the Uyejis, who were sent to concentration camps in California in 1942. The Navy eventually took over the land and built warehouses on the property, which was never returned to the Uyejis.


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