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National Archives tries ‘re-set’ with tribes about Seattle closure

Rhonda Farrar demonstrated against the closure and sale of the Seattle facility of the National Archives. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

Officials from the Washington, D.C, offices of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are in Seattle this week, quietly meeting with staff of the threatened Seattle facility and with representatives of Puget Sound area Native American tribes. The meetings have not been publicized, but multiple sources alerted KIRO Radio that they were taking place.

The federal government announced in late January that the facility would be closed, and the real estate sold to raise money. Materials held there since the 1960s, which include priceless federal records and tribal materials such as maps, photos, and documents from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska dating to the 1840s, would be moved to a NARA facility in Riverside, California.

No public input was sought regarding the Seattle facility before the decision was made to close it, and the multiple federal agencies involved in the decision have been unwilling to substantively address questions from the media.

A KIRO Radio reporter was at the facility near Magnuson Park earlier Tuesday, but was not allowed to attend the meeting, which NARA officials said was “invitation only.”

A group of demonstrators, carrying signs that read “Keep archives here” and “Tribal records are sacred” stood outside during the meeting, and greeted tribal representatives as they entered the building. One woman, who came from Celilo Village on the Columbia River, chanted and beat a drum.

Based on conversations with NARA officials, tribal representatives, and demonstrators, here are six takeaways from today’s meeting:

1. NARA officials deny it was their agency’s decision to keep the public and other stakeholders in the dark about the Seattle closure for the past several months. This is contrary to what Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) executive director Adam Bodner told me on tape for KIRO Radio last month. NARA will not go on tape to make this assertion.

2. NARA wants to move forward on the closure and move, which may take four years to complete, but do so in consultation with tribes: to hear their concerns about how the materials might be digitized, and to find other ways to accommodate the tribes’ needs for access.

3. Representatives of many tribes in attendance today who spoke with KIRO Radio before or after the meeting — including representatives from Puyallup, Samish, and Tulalip — are upset about not being consulted before the decision was made. There is frustration about the short notice for today’s meeting, and about the fact that the National Congress of American Indians is underway this week in Washington, D.C., and thus many local tribal leaders could not be in Seattle today. That said, several tribal representatives told me they are committed to working to keep the archives here, and not letting NARA move them to California. Whether this might include legal action is not yet clear. It’s also unclear who can undo the decision; NARA says it’s not up to them. Perhaps the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who formally accepted the recommendation from the PBRB to close, holds the key. OMB has not responded to multiple inquiries from KIRO Radio.

4. A word that came up multiple times was “trust,” as in, how can the tribes trust NARA moving forward, given that the decision to close and sell was made without consulting tribes or other stakeholders. In essence, how can (and why should) the tribes believe what NARA says about anything regarding the Seattle facility now?

5. No one from the national NARA offices present at the Seattle facility today would go on the record with KIRO Radio about anything. Period. Like OMB, NARA has not responded substantively to any inquiries from KIRO Radio for weeks.

6. Transparency and trust are key to functional relationships; there appears to be a lack of both in this situation, given the process to date. As much as NARA wants to do a re-set, the damage has been done. The meeting today, which was not publicly disclosed and which was poorly timed, could have been an opportunity to begin a transparent process for tribes, as well as for the general public and other stakeholders, not to mention the media. That opportunity appears to have been squandered.

Meanwhile, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson continues to weigh legal action, and last week sent document requests to multiple federal agencies involved in the Seattle facility. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is leading an effort to identify alternatives to the priceless materials being shipped to California.

This is a developing story.

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