Historically Significant FBI Files in Danger of Shredding

"The early surveillance - 1930s-1960s - of Native American people by the FBI has been largely undocumented."
Michael Ravnitzky

An examination of FBI File holdings indicates that a large number of records of interest to the Native American community may be in serious danger of destruction.

I am a law student at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. I worked for 14 years as an engineer and technical director in industry and for a trade association, and have written/edited three books and over 50 freelance magazine and newspaper articles.

Between 1924 and 1972, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover collected massive dossiers on millions of Americans. Over the past five years, I have requested approximately 1000 FBI files of historically significant (deceased) Americans. Among the categories of people I've inquired about are actors, architects, artists, association executives, astronauts, athletes, attorneys, aviators, broadcasters, businesspeople, cartoonists, columnists, comedians, composers, criminals, cryptographers, designers, diplotmats, directors, editors, etc. What really surprised me was that approximately 80% of the people I've asked about have had files, ranging in size from 5 pages to 5000 pages.

Since I've made so many requests and seen so many FBI files, I've gained some expertise in evaluating FBI records. In addition, over the years, I've read about illicit FBI surveillance in projects such as COINTELPRO. Readers of this location are no doubt familiar with FBI/Native American interaction during the time period from the 1960's onward.

My hypothesis is that there is a body of FBI records dealing with surveillance of Native Americans from the 1920's until the early 1960's that has largely gone undocumented because of the lack of primary sources. Federal jurisdiction over Indian territories and reservations no doubt led to FBI involvement in Native American affairs and political events.

With deference to pioneering activists in the Twin Cities in the 1960's, I believe that earlier activities and earlier improper government use of law enforcement for political purposes needs more research.

So, I propose that readers of this site select the twenty most important native American leaders or figures who were active (or even just still alive) between the years 1920 through 1960, and ask for the FBI files on each. Due to an unfortunate arrangement between the National Archives and Records Administration and the FBI in 1981, there is a Records Retention Schedule which permits wholesale destruction of FBI records, even those of historical or sociological importance. The NARA guidelines were written under the NARA misconception that the FBI only kept tabs on criminals, gangsters, bank robbers, communists, and atomic scientists. They didn't realize that the FBI had so many files on important people in history.

Therefore, as we speak, early files are being destroyed. The only way to stop their destruction is to ask for the files you need before they are gone--destruction of a file cannot take place while a request for that file is pending.

For each individual's records, just send a simple letter of request to:

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Freedom of Information Act Unit
Records Resources Division
9th & Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20535 USA

I suggest a separate letter for each individual. Be sure to enclose in the letter:

  1. a photocopy of an article from an encyclopedia or biographical reference volume or a newspaper obituary or a Who Was Who in America volume or something else in print that indicates that the person is deceased. If the person was born over 120 years ago, the FBI doesn't require proof of death, as long as you have the date and place of birth.
  2. Include in the letter the date and place of birth for the person, the person's full name (and any other names used by that person), and the date of death for the person.

Make sure that you tell the FBI in the letter that you are a private individual or private researcher, or are writing for a newsletter or other publication, or work for an educational or scientific institution.

Make sure that you agree in the letter to pay reasonable fees up to $30 for the records for that person. You can also ask for a fee waiver if the release of those records will benefit the public. If you do, also say that you're willing to pay fees, but explain why you think that fees should be waived.

For the categories above, you receive the first 100 pages at no charge, and the rest are 10 cents per page. It probably won't cost much or anything to get most of these records.

Here is your chance to write an unknown chapter in history. Good luck.

Michael Ravnitzky
612 Lincoln Avenue #301
St. Paul, MN 55102-2829

written: 28 Aug 1996