Everyone had expected to see Billy Frank Jr. sometime that day at the mid-year conference of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
So, ATNI President Fawn Sharp’s tearful announcement the morning of May 5 sent the room in stunned silence:
The civil rights activist and environmental warrior had walked on.
“It was news we didn’t want to believe,” attorney Gabe Galanda said.
The silence was broken by a Shaker prayer song. Then, someone stood and offered a prayer. The question was asked: Should the meeting continue or adjourn?
Continue, a relative of Frank’s said. The man so many knew as Uncle Billy would want the meeting to continue, because the state needs to remove those fish-blocking culverts, and the state has to lower the pollution levels allowed businesses so we can eat more fish, and the federal government has to take the lead on enforcing laws protecting salmon habitat, and brothers and sisters elsewhere in Indian country are fighting for their rights to fish and hunt and harvest.
“We in Indian country, collectively, will have to pick up the mantle,” state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said.
A big mantle it is. In his 83 years, the Nisqually Tribe citizen defended treaty rights in the Northwest and indigenous sovereignty throughout Indian country, guided opposing sides to agreement on how to protect natural resources, helped bring down two dams on the Elwha River, produced an Emmy Award-winning series on Indian country. He chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 34 years, served as a trustee of The Evergreen State College for seven.
Frank, whose honors included the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, was as comfortable in the Oval Office as he was in a tribal chairperson’s office.
“He was a giant in Indian country and we’re going to miss him,” McCoy said.
The funeral service is scheduled for May 11, 10 a.m., in the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort Event Center, according to Hank Adams, his friend and fellow treaty rights activist.
It seems fitting that his service would be held in the same venue as the celebration, only three months earlier, of the 40th anniversary of the decision in U.S. vs. Washington. That decision, by U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt, upheld the Indian fishing rights reserved in treaties signed in 1855. The decision upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution.
Boldt’s decision established the Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the state’s salmon fishery and 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.
In the years leading to the Boldt decision, Frank was arrested more than 50 times, sometimes brutally, in his defense of treaty fishing rights. (State fish and game officers arrested Indians for fishing without state licenses, even on reservations, where the state has no jurisdiction. The state blamed Indians, who comprised 1 percent of the state population, for diminishing salmon populations, even though it was issuing non-Native fishermen fishing licenses with no catch limits for $15). And yet, despite the racism and the arrests, Frank carried no resentments.
“He knew if he harbored resentment, he couldn’t win them over,” McCoy said.
Instead, he won over his opponents with friendship and truth.
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Ruth and Korczak Ziolkowski
“His tenacity is what I admire most,” McCoy said. “He was like a bulldog. He stuck to the facts. I’ve found that when I work with opponents in the legislature, when I stick to the facts I can get them to come to reason, because you can’t argue with the facts.”
McCoy added, “He listened. He truly listened to what they had to say. Then he gave his side and would show that they were not that far apart on the issue – both sides had the same goals, they just wanted to go about it differently.”
Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman told the North Kitsap Herald that Frank had an engaging leadership style that helped him build bridges between opposing groups.
“Whether he was talking to you one on one or in a crowd, he was really genuine,” Forsman said. “He was always kind. He respected everybody.” But, he added, “He was also clear on what his priorities were … 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.”
Frank’s passing was felt in Alaskan villages, where he inspired Alaska Natives fighting to protect their fishing and hunting rights, to large Indian country capitals. His passing spurred reaction from national leaders, as well as young leaders inspired by Frank’s leadership.
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Billy Frank Jr.,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House on May 5.
“Today, thanks to his courage and determined effort, our resources are better protected, and more tribes are able to enjoy the rights preserved for them more than a century ago. Billy never stopped fighting to make sure future generations would be able to enjoy the outdoors as he did, and his passion on the issue of climate change should serve as an inspiration to us all.”
In a statement released by his office, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Frank was a “champion of tribal rights, of the salmon, and the environment … even when it meant putting himself in physical danger or facing jail.”
Inslee said he’s thankful Frank got to see the passage of a state bill that overturned the convictions of those arrested for protesting in defense of their treaty rights. The governor said, “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 Frank Jr.
Inslee said Frank told him of the spiritual and cultural relationship that indigenous people have with salmon. "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.”
Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, said the loss of Frank as a teacher and mentor 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.”
Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation, testified with Frank in April before the U.S. House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee “and he was still fighting to get full funding for the salmon. He will always be a legend. He was a warrior and his legacy lives on in the lifeblood of the people, the fish, and the waters we depend upon.”
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said Frank’s passing is a loss to “indigenous citizens throughout the world.”
“He was a beloved leader, warrior and advocate for Tribal sovereignty,” Baker said in a statement released by his office. “He fought tirelessly for fishing rights that were guaranteed to Native people through treaties negotiated with the federal government. He was ahead of his time in his commitment to natural resource preservation. Throughout Indian country, we all knew Billy as a man who led by example, campaigned for fairness and Indian people, and defended tribal traditions.”
Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, wrote that Frank 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.”
Mike Williams Sr., a member of the Akiak Tribal Council and an alternate vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, considered Frank a friend and was looking forward to his visit to Bethel in June.
“I’m deeply shocked and at a loss,” Williams said. “It’s a tough day for me. It’s a great big loss.”
Williams said “everybody knows Billy Frank Jr.” in Native Alaska – “even in the boonies.” Frank visited Alaska several times and encouraged Alaska Natives in their fight to preserve their fishing and hunting rights; Alaska Natives are working to resolve conflicts between traditional fishing and hunting and state regulations.
“He really inspired me to face the tough challenges,” Williams said. “As part of Billy Frank’s work, he was jailed 50 times, but in the end, he was right. God rest his soul.”
Galanda, a citizen of Round Valley Indian Tribes in Northern California, grew up in Port Angeles, Washington. When he went to law school at University of Arizona, he was often asked, “You’re from the Pacific Northwest – do you know Billy Frank?”
“The thing that inspired me the most was how tireless he was,” said Galanda, who’s worked to protect the traditional religious practices of Native American inmates. “The idea that a man in his 80s could have such an unprecedented level of commitment and resolve. Sometimes, when I feel down, or tired, or dejected, I think, ‘If he’s still doing it, I can do it.’”
Deborah Parker is a Tulalip Tribes council member who was a key figure in the successful effort to add protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act. She said Frank taught the younger generation to fight with truth, compassion and perseverance. “He laid his life on the ancestral teachings of those before him,” she said. “He taught our younger tribal leaders to follow our spiritual beliefs in all that we do, even if it's unpopular.”
Her message to those grieving: “Whenever you feel like you want to give up or [you] have a bad day, rest for a moment, but get back up and fight for what you believe in. Remember, Billy Frank never gave up. He dusted himself off and caught the next flight leading to the next fight.”
Billy Frank Jr. with Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe while speaking at the celebration of the beginning of dam removal on the Elwha River, September 2011.