Here is what the next couple of years is going to be like: A constant cleaning-up process to pick up what pieces remain of the country after four years of disastrous Republican rule. Like a teenager trying desperately to straighten up the house after a particularly raucous house party, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
The good news is that among Donald Trump’s very few talents, one stands out above all the rest: Losing.
For example, his administration launched an effort to sell Seattle’s archive building, destroying countless hours of work to preserve the history of immigrant and indigenous communities by scattering archive materials across the country. Trump's lackeys nearly got away with it, but Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed suit, and last week a judge granted an injunction halting the sale.
And while lawsuits and injunctions are often quite tedious, this particular case prompted dozens of people to speak up about the value of having their family’s archival materials housed and protected close by. The declarations by people whose lives were transformed by the Archive—seventy-nine of them—are truly spellbinding.
“I opened the file and looked,” wrote Rhonda J. Farrar, a Tlingit tribal member and daughter of a Chinese immigrant. “Tears came, for I was staring into my father's face. He was 23, about to go volunteer in China with the Chinese Air Force, and become a mechanic for the Flying Tigers. This was 2015, just before Father's Day, 100 years since his birth, and 50 years since he had died.”
Another declaration came from Ken House, a retired archivist, who noted that tribal members in the region sometimes face challenges in proving their genealogy. “This could lead to disenrollment of a member or members of the tribe,” he wrote. “The disenrolled family would lose access to their tribal identity and sometimes life or death matters such as health care or housing. … During my time working at the National Archives, I worked with a number of researchers who were homeless, including veterans, and some who were living in their cars in the NARA parking lot while doing research.”
Historian Ross Allen Coen wrote about the Archive’s indispensable role in his research into bombs that Japan sent to the US via balloon. “I examined U.S. Forest Service records regarding the deaths of six people on National Forest lands in southern Oregon from an explosion caused by one of the downed Japanese balloon bombs. These rare, original records, which included affidavits and eyewitness reports, were available in no other repository, and without the services of NARA-Seattle I would have been unable to tell the story,” he wrote.
Robert Kentta, Treasurer of the Siletz Tribal Council, noted that “the Siletz Tribe has spent well over $1 million to find and assemble at the Archives in Seattle the history of all these component tribes and bands and individuals, and to try to create a comprehensible and comprehensive history of the Siletz Tribe and its members. … These records are extensive and scattered throughout the record groups maintained at the Archives, in no easily accessible format. Many are handwritten in faded script, so deciphering takes additional time.”
Trevor James Bond, an Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives and Special Collections at Washington State University, shared the story of Dr. Robbie Paul, the former director of WSU's Native American Health Sciences program. Dr. Paul used boarding school records at the National Archives at Seattle to piece together formerly-lost details about her family's history in “Indian boarding schools” and “share the early history of her great-great-grandfather, Chief Ut-Sin-Malikan, the first to see the loss of the old Native American ways and of Nez Perce identity in his lifetime.”
“The relocation of the Archives away from the Pacific Northwest would be equivalent to someone removing a sacred photo album that has been passed down through generations from one's home,” wrote Gabriann Hall, a member of the Klamath tribe. A few years ago, she was flipping through records in the Archive and unearthed evidence of a decades-old scheme to steal timber from the Klamath Reservation.
“I had no clue what a powerful experience it would be to hold some of the original Klamath Tribal roll sheets in my hands,” she wrote. “Even more overwhelming for me was seeing my Grandmother Marilynn Hall's handwritten Tribal Council notes from her time as Tribal Secretary. The whole time I reviewed the records, all I wanted to do was share the experience with my family members, knowing how much it would mean to them.”
It’s incredible how much the Archive means to the people whose land we occupy, and it’s chilling just how close we came to the memories of those peoples’ forebears being lost. The Archive is safe for now, but the injunction is only temporary and the lawsuit isn’t over. History doesn’t just live in the past — it also requires defending in the present.