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‘They’re our records’: Alaska Native tribes join lawsuit opposing closure of National Archives building in Seattle

Anchorage, Alaska.
Anchorage, Alaska.(Rachel McPherron // Alaska's News Source)
Published: Jan. 5, 2021 at 7:41 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When Robin Renfroe wanted to learn about her grandmother who passed away long before she was born, she visited the National Archives facility in Anchorage.

There, she learned about her grandmother’s life in Circle, Alaska.

“How big their cabin was, how many dogs they had, who was in the household at the time – just a lot of information that hadn’t been available anyplace else,” she explained.

The archive facility held thousands of rolls of microfilm, she remembers, covering Alaska from the late 1800s on. The information includes hospital, court and land records.

“It’s just a plethora of documents that most people don’t even know about, but for those of us that do, we understand how important it is to have access to them,” said Renfroe.

The Anchorage facility has since been closed down – a cost-saving measure – and some of Alaska’s most important pieces of history moved to Seattle.

Now, Doyon, Limited, Tanana Chiefs Conference, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida, numerous Pacific Northwest Tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington are joining forces in a lawsuit aimed at preventing the closure of the Federal Archives and Records Center that houses the National Archives at Seattle.

“The General Services Administration approved a recommendation to close the facility in January 2020, without consulting state, local, federally recognized tribes or Alaska Native corporations, as required by agency regulations,” a joint release from Doyon and Tanana Chiefs Conference stated Tuesday. “Many remember that in 2016, when the National Archives facility in Anchorage was closed, the federal government stated that records from Alaska would be relocated to Seattle and remain readily available.”

According to the complaint filed in federal court, the closure of the Seattle archive facility would mean Alaska’s records would be sent farther away to facilities in Missouri and California.

“Just to have that removed without any consultation or you know, feedback from the public, it’s concerning because, again, these are our records. They’re our state’s records, you know, from hundreds and hundreds of federal agencies that have been up here for a very very long time, and they’ve been housed here, and then all of the sudden, again, they’re removed,” said Renfroe, who is the vice president of Shareholder Relations at Doyon, Limited.

Renfroe said she tried to visit the Seattle facility during a trip to the Lower 48 prior to the pandemic, only to discover reduced hours that prevented her from accessing records before her planned trip home.

RELATED: Washington, Oregon, 29 tribes sue over plan to move archives

“If they’re gonna look at doing something, why not bring it back here for the people who have the most to get out of it so, you know, why move it further away from us?” she said. “Why not bring it back into the state of Alaska, because basically, it means that it’s lost to us. It’s information that’s lost.”

According to the release, the records from Alaska housed at the Seattle facility are “unique, rare, un-digitized, and otherwise unavailable elsewhere.”

“These archives hold important records related to TCC and its member tribes’ history, Native Allotments, and hunting and fishing rights,” TCC Chief and Chairman PJ Simon is quoted in the release. “It’s important that we ensure that these historical documents remain easily accessible to those who need them.”

The lawsuit alleges the building is legally exempt from being sold under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act and that the federal government failed to follow procedural requirements and consult with tribes and people who would be impacted by the closure of the facility and the removal of the archives from Seattle.

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