‘Much of Alaska’s history is not here anymore’: The National Archives are moving again, this time even farther away

Steven Henrikson has worked at the state museum since 1988. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Steve Henrikson has worked at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau since 1988. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

The National Archives and Records Administration facility in Seattle is slated to close.

It warehouses federal documents obtained from states across the Northwest, and it’s especially important for the youngest one in the bunch: Alaska, since many landmark decisions were made just a half-century ago. So much of our recent history is from the state’s federal territory days.

At the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum in Juneau, staff have already been making do with an incomplete history.

Examining microfilm can be a tedious task. But Steve Henrikson doesn’t see it that way. For him, it’s like being on a quest.

“I really enjoy the process of doing research. I like it a lot better than writing up the findings, to tell you the truth,” he said with a chuckle.

The building where he works in Juneau contains newspapers and trade magazines, but not the federal documents he’s often looking for: documents that help him create descriptions of the museum’s exhibits and dig up colorful facts.

One time, he found the report card of a famous Alaska artist. For a historian, that’s like hitting the jackpot.

“I hope that none of my report cards from my early career have ended up in the National Archives,” Henrikson said. “But I guess that’s what they say when something is going on your permanent record.”

Henrikson said it was fairly easy to get to the National Archives when a branch was located in Anchorage. But in 2014, despite public outcry, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget decided to move almost everything in Alaska to Seattle.

“It was disappointing. But it was still manageable,” Henrikson said.

Now, the National Archives could move again. The date hasn’t been set, but the building in Seattle was deemed a high-value property by a federal committee that recommended selling it.

This time, the collection could be sent to California and Missouri. Henrikson thinks that’s separating Alaskans even farther from their story.

“Much of Alaska’s history is not here anymore,” he said.

Karen Gray, the state archivist, agrees.

“We’re a pretty new state. We need those federal records,” Gray said.

After the close of the Anchorage branch of the National Archives, 5,000 boxes of territorial court records were transferred to the state. But Gray said many noteworthy items, such as records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, aren’t here.

She said that’s a problem, because some federal policies in the state are still being discussed.

“Uh, let’s see,” Gray said, examining a sheet of paper. “Correspondence relating to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s still very important to today.”

So are documents that detail the creation of national forests in Alaska, and case files from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Gray seemed a little exhausted as she ran down the list.

“I did make a frustrated shrug,” Gray said. “You hope that when our historical records move, there’s some way to access them. And it seems so easy to say, ‘Oh, digitize it and put it online.’ But it’s not that easy.”

Gray said this latest announcement — that the National Archives would be moving — caught her off guard. She found out just weeks before a final decision was made.

And many elected officials are also wondering why the federal government decided to proceed with no public input. U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan signed a bipartisan letter questioning why more stakeholders weren’t in the loop.

Richard Peterson wonders that, too. He’s the president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and he’s concerned about what could be lost.

“There are historical documents. Things where the government has made significant promises that we want memorialized,” Peterson said. “That when we need to hold them accountable, that we have access to.”

A contemporary robe to be exhibited at the Alaska State Museum in the summer. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Back at the museum, Henrikson unlocked a door leading to a large, well-ventilated space where most of the museum’s collection is kept. There’s one particular spot where Henrikson has been spending a lot of time.

“This is just a really large cabinet that has these wide, flat drawers that have our collection of ceremonial robes,” Henrikson said.

Henrikson would like to know more about the weavers who created these robes, woven in the Chilkat and Ravenstail tradition. He’s helping curate a new exhibit to be displayed in the summer.

“We’re hoping that our show will inspire young people to take it up,” Henrikson said.

Some of the details, like photographs and names, were documented by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, a federal program created in the 1930s.

But Henrikson hasn’t been able to make it to Seattle to do the research. If the National Archives move even farther away from Alaska, he said those types of trips will go from being infrequent to becoming nearly impossible.