Billy Frank Jr. devoted his life to defense of fishing rights, salmon habitat

Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, participated in the Tribal Summit at Suquamish
Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, participated in the Tribal Summit at Suquamish's House of Awakened Culture, April 24.
— image credit: Melinda Weer / Herald

OLYMPIA — Billy Frank Jr., a key figure in the fight to protect Native American fishing rights and salmon habitat, passed away at home on May 5, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission announced.

Frank was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years. He was 83.

A Nisqually Tribe member, Frank was known specifically for his grassroots campaign in defense of fishing rights on the Tribe’s Nisqually River north of Olympia in the 1960s and 1970s. Frank was arrested more than 50 times in the "Fish Wars" of that time.

In 1970, the U.S. sued the State of Washington on behalf of the Treaty Tribes, alleging the state was preventing Tribes from exercising the fishing rights guaranteed them under treaties signed with the U.S. On Feb. 12, 1974, U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt ruled in favor of the Treaty Tribes. An article in the treaties states “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” Boldt interpreted “in common with” to mean an equal share, 50 percent of the available salmon harvest.

But Boldt’s ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, did more than affirm Indian fishing rights. It upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. It established Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the salmon fishery. And it spawned other actions designed to protect salmon, because — as Frank stated in the ensuing years — if there is no salmon fishery, then the treaty is violated.

Among those subsequent actions:

— In 1985, Canada and the United States signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty; through the Pacific Salmon Commission, both countries cooperate in the management, research and enhancement of Pacific salmon stocks.

— In 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that indigenous treaty signers had also reserved the right to harvest shellfish from any beds not “staked or cultivated by citizens,” meaning all public and private tidelands are subject to treaty harvest. “A treaty is not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them,” Rafeedie wrote in his decision.

— In 1999, the state Legislature adopted the Forests & Fish Law, directing the state’s Forest Practices Board to adopt measures to protect Washington's native fish and aquatic species and ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. The law affects 60,000 miles of streams flowing through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.

— In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that the state must remove hundreds of state highway culverts that block fish passage over the next 17 years. The State of Washington is appealing the decision.

While Frank was a vigorous defender of Native rights under the treaty, he believed that non-Natives had a stake in the treaty too. He spent a lot of time educating non-Native people about that stake.

"People forget that non-Indians in western Washington have treaty rights, too," he wrote in 2007.

"Treaties opened the door to statehood. Without them, non-Indians would have no legal right to buy property, build homes or even operate businesses on the millions of acres Tribes ceded to the federal government.

"Treaty rights should never be taken for granted — by anyone."

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The National Congress of American Indians issued this statement May 5:

The National Congress of American Indians is grieving the loss of Billy Frank Jr. A member of the Nisqually Tribe, Billy spent his life fighting for our right to fish and protect our own waters and fiercely advocated for the complete fulfillment of treaty commitments by the federal government.

Billy Frank, Jr. has been the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission since its inception in 1974. NWIFC was created following a Supreme Court decision “that re-affirmed the Tribes’ treaty-reserved fishing rights and established them as natural resources co-managers with the State of Washington” and serves “to assist member tribes in their role as natural resources co-managers.”

NCAI President Brian Cladoosby had the honor of growing up under Billy Frank Jr. As he did with Brian, Billy guided many young leaders across the country and shared with them the importance of natural resources and the value of treaty rights. Together, with Billy's teachings to sustain culture and a unique Northwest quality of life, we will continue to work together to protect all that is important to our Tribes.

Upon learning the news, President Cladoosby said:

“Indian Country has lost one of the greatest leaders who fought to protect salmon, water, and quality of life for our people. The loss of Billy as our teacher, mentor, and elder is immeasurable. Our very way of life is only possible because of the battles Billy fought — without his personal sacrifices, Tribes in the Northwest would look very different. My own life would be very different if I had not had been blessed by Billy’s teachings, example, and love. My prayers go out to his family and the many, many others whose lives he touched.”

Billy Frank Jr. has walked on but will never be forgotten. NCAI lifts up his family, friends, and Tribe.

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Lummi Nation Chairman Tim Ballew was at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians' mid-year conference in Chehalis when the announcement was made of Frank's passing.

"We just found out — God bless him," Ballew said. "… There was actually a meeting that he was getting ready to go to, and he was working right up until the end fighting for the cause, God bless.

"It's a devastating loss for all of Indian country. He was a major fighter for sovereignty and fishing rights. And we are suffering a big loss throughout the country today. Our prayers and thoughts go to him and his family."

Darrell Hillaire, former chairman and current treasurer of the Lummi Nation, said, “It's a sad, sad day in Indian country.”

"He was the world most famous Indian. I think losing him is like one of our old-growth trees falling over … I can feel a sadness all across the country today. I'm proud to have known him.”

Hillaire said the passing of Frank — who led the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission since its formation and lobbied unendlessly for salmon habitat restoration and protection — creates a leadership void that will not easily be filled. "We are going to do that together,” Hillaire said. “You can't fill the void in your heart, but we can do the work together.

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Frank's work and persona influenced people of all ages.

For example, when Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp's son, then 4, had to go to the doctor's office for four shots, he wasn't scared — because of Billy Frank Jr. "I'm going to be a tough Indian, just like Billy," Sharp said, quoting her son.

Sharp said Frank had a deep understanding of Native American struggles, and also insight into the future.

“Billy Frank Jr. had a sense of humor, and was always interested in meeting people," Sharp said. “He would pique people's minds with interest, and chances are you would end up laughing when you spoke to him.

“He just had a warm, larger-than-life persona," Sharp said. After speaking to him, "your heart would be warmed."

There will be only one Billy Frank Jr, she said. However, he inspired younger generations and will be known to those who haven't even been born yet.

"They will know Billy, they will understand Billy," Sharp said.

“Whether he was talking to you one on one or in a crowd, he was really genuine,” Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman said May 5. “He was also clear on what his priorities were.”

Forsman said Frank had an engaging leadership style that helped him build bridges between opposing groups. “He was always kind. Every time you saw him he was so happy to see you. He respected everybody. He loved the kids, the elders, the leaders, even his adversaries. Whether in a classroom or in the White House, he was always comfortable … He could communicate the issues and the reasons the Tribes’ rights were so important to us, and do that in a way that the non-Indian world could better understand.”

Forsman said Frank will continue to be an inspiration to younger and emerging leaders. “He encouraged a lot of younger leaders … and [educated] them about the importance of being involved in Tribal government and in protecting sovereignty.”

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The Washington state House Committee on Government Accountability observed a moment of silence May 5 in honor of Billy Frank Jr.

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These public officials issued statements on the passing of Billy Frank Jr..

Gov. Jay Inslee
"Washington lost a true legend with the passing of Billy Frank Jr. today.

"He was a selfless leader who dedicated his life to the long fight for the rights of our state's native people. Billy was a champion of tribal rights, of the salmon, and the environment. He did that even when it meant putting himself in physical danger or facing jail.

"I'm thankful Billy was here to see the 2014 Legislature pass a bill helping to overturn convictions from treaty protests. Billy was right on this issue and the state owed this gesture of justice to him and others who jeopardized their liberty to fight for treaty rights.

"Billy never wavered in his conviction and passion. He stressed to me the spiritual and cultural relationship that indigenous people have with salmon.

"His work is the foundation of an enduring legacy that will never be forgotten in Washington state.

"He once said, 'The Creator put that salmon there for it to survive.' I thank the Creator for putting Billy here to make sure we never forget what he fought for.

"Trudi and I send our condolences to Billy's family, friends, tribal members and everyone across the state and the country who mourns the passing of this great man."

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Bremerton
“Today, the Pacific Northwest — and America — lost a true legend. Billy Frank's legacy on civil rights issues, on ensuring America lives up to its Tribal treaty obligations, and protecting our natural resources has touched generations past and present.

“When Billy spoke you listened. We saw that firsthand just last week when he commanded a room that included Tribal leaders, federal officials, and the Secretary of the Interior.

“There is a Native American proverb that says we should make decisions with an eye toward how they would affect our children seven generations into the future. Billy Frank was an embodiment of that ethos.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington
“Billy Frank was a legend among men,” said Cantwell, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Today, America lost a civil rights leader whose impact will be felt for generations to come.

“Billy Frank stood as a guiding light for Native people to stand up for their rights in a non-violent way. His bravery and leadership led to the breakthrough Boldt Decision, which forever changed the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Today, because of the Boldt Decision, the state and Tribes are partners in the management and preservation of resources that are foundational to the economy of the state.

“Until the very end, Billy continued to fight for Tribes’ treaty rights, including fighting for a healthy environment that can sustain salmon and other resources for the next generations.

“I wish to send my condolences to Billy’s family, many of whom continue his great work today. Indian Country will miss this giant of a man. I will miss my friend and the smile that he always brought to my face.”

Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, on behalf of the commission
“Indian County has suffered a monumental loss in the passing of Billy Frank Jr.

"Billy was a staunch advocate for Tribal sovereignty and treaty reserved fishing rights as well as the region’s salmon populations. His impacts knew no boundaries and were often felt from the streams of the Pacific Northwest to the halls of Washington, D.C.

"Billy was a living icon whose legacy will be seen in every fish return, every Tribal fishery and every battle for those resources that has yet to be fought.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington
“From the members of Washington state’s Tribes to all of us who cherish our natural treasures and salmon-fishing heritage, Billy Frank’s remarkable life touched everyone who calls Washington state home.

“When it came to representing his community and fighting to make a difference, no one worked harder than Billy. No one could ever replace his incredible joy for life and his unyielding belief in simply doing the right thing.

“I’ll never forget the dozens of meetings and conversations I had with Billy over the years or the impact he made on our state. From his work in the 1960s and 1970s advocating for Tribal co-management of salmon resources to his never-ending work in support of his community, Billy made Washington state a better place. He will be greatly missed by generations of Washingtonians and everyone who was lucky enough to call him a friend.”

Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator
“Billy Frank Jr. was an historic and heroic leader of his generation. With his passing, America has lost one of its greatest voices for justice.

“Billy has been a close friend and partner to the Environmental Protection Agency over the past four decades, as a member of the Nisqually people, founder of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and one of the most forward thinking environmental leaders of our time.

“His ability to bring together leaders from all sectors to further the protection of critical natural resources resulted in a resurgence of momentum on natural resource conversation, cultural preservation, the protection of fish, treaty rights, and climate change.

“Through his tireless efforts, as a passionate voice for the protection of our air, water, and land, EPA’s own Tribal efforts were strongly influenced in the early 1990s as we created an office to more directly address Tribal issues across the country. We will, in that spirit, continue working to strengthen our government-to-government relationship and partnership with Tribal citizens.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson
“Billy was a true statesman who brought an optimistic, can-do approach to environmental and natural resource challenges. His activism and perseverance helped build the foundation of an enduring legacy that Washington state will never forget.

“More than four decades ago, Billy was a Tribal fisherman who began fighting for American Indian fishing rights. He remained a zealous champion of Tribal rights, salmon and the environment the rest of his life.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell
“Indian Country and the nation lost a true giant as Chairman Billy Frank has walked on. His lasting legacy will be felt for generations in the hearts and minds of those he touched over an entire life dedicated to serving others. Two weeks ago, the entire room fell silent at a Tribal Summit held at the Suquamish reservation in Washington to listen as Billy spoke forcefully and passionately about the need to tackle the growing threat of climate change.  Billy shared a great sense of urgency that we come together as one people to work toward practical solutions to address its impacts.

“To honor his life of service, let us redouble our efforts to do everything we can to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities and to partner with tribes across the country on caring for our lands, waters and wildlife. On behalf of all Department of the Interior employees, we extend our deepest condolences to the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and to Mr. Frank’s family and friends during this difficult time.”




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