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Biden administration reverses Trump decision to sell historic archives in Seattle

The National Archives in Sand Point, Wash., that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times via AP)

SEATTLE — The Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit.

Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell announced Thursday that the federal Office of Management and Budget had withdrawn its approval for the sale, which would have forced the transfer of millions of records to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and Riverside, California.

A federal judge had already blocked the sale, pending a lawsuit by Washington, Oregon and more than two dozen Native American and Alaska Native tribes. All eight senators from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska opposed the sale, and Murray and Cantwell had been pushing the Biden administration to halt it.

“While this process never should have begun in the first place without Tribal and local consultation, I’m glad that OMB has listened to local Tribes and reversed their decision to approve the sale of the Seattle Archive building,” Murray said. “I will continue working to ensure the generations of artifacts and history stored in the Seattle facility will remain accessible to stakeholders across the Pacific Northwest.”

The records at National Archives facility date to the 1840s and include documents key to the histories of 272 federally recognized tribes in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho. It houses all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest, including military service, land, court, tax, marriage and census documents.

The documents also include records of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. 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.

Only a tiny fraction of the records have been digitized, and the facility is frequently used for research related to genealogy, land use and water rights, treaties and other historical topics.

Tom Wooten, chairman of the Samish Indian Nation near Anacortes, Washington, noted Thursday that tribes have often resorted to the archives to vindicate their treaty rights and their oral traditions. He has researched his own family history there, he noted.

“This material is too important and too valuable to leave this area,” Wooten said. “You have to know where you come from. There’s no way folks could go to Kansas or California to do that kind of research.”

The little-known Public Buildings Reform Board, which was created in 2016 to help sell off surplus federal property, decided in late 2019 to sell the National Archives building. OMB approved it in early 2020.

In a letter Thursday, OMB’s acting director, Shalanda Young, said that approval was inconsistent with President Joe Biden’s direction that federal agencies engage in meaningful and regular consultation with tribes when it comes to decisions that affect them.

Any future sale of the facility would have to begin with a new process, including tribal consultation as well as a new factual record, Young said.

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