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Billy Frank Jr.: An Indigenous Legend and One of the Best Human Beings Ever

Gyasi Ross writes about his relationship with one of his idols, the late Billy Frank, Jr.
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I know news cycles quickly move on to the “next big story.” But we can’t do that with Billy Frank, Jr. He deserves a LOT more time.

I know last week everybody was talking a lot about Billy Frank, Jr. Good. They should. He’s a legend, an icon, one of the most important human beings in this Nation. But I want to tell just a bit about my own little perspective about the Uncle Billy that I know.

When I met Uncle Billy, he was already an international human rights/civil rights icon. I was fortunate to know a lot of folks from Franks Landing and Wa He Lut Indian School as a child; my brother Adochas and Spappy introduced me to their parents, the late, great Allison Bridges Gottfriedson (a powerful activist in her own right) and also Hank Gottfriedson, and they are all part of Uncle Billy’s immediate family. It made sense—Allison and family are all incredible, generous and powerful people. Like Uncle Billy.

Being powerful and principled is a family value for members of the Franks Landing Indian Community. They are all incredible Native people who taught me what Native power could look like.

The folks from Franks Landing later introduced me to Uncle Billy. When I met him, I was in awe. Like the Scottish warriors in “Braveheart,” I expected Billy Frank to be seven feet tall, consume his enemies with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.

But instead, there was this little, silver-haired Native man with an ever-present wool hat and a vest on. Superman’s costume—it worked perfectly.

I hear a lot of people talking about how close they were with Billy, how good of friends they were with him.

Those people were extremely lucky. Me, I can’t pretend that Uncle Billy was my “friend.” Oh sure, he was plenty FRIENDLY. He was always loving. He made me feel perfectly at home when he invited me to his house or when he entrusted me to hang out with his brilliant and beloved youngest son, Willie. Just like he did with everyone else he met, he made US feel like the star even though everyone knew that HE was the real star. He loved my son and always welcomed my family with open arms. Uncle Billy was 100% about the kids and, even though he was always working to literally save the planet, he always made time to play with my son.

But he wasn’t my friend.

No, I was his disciple. I was his student. Friendship is for people who communicated as equals; I put Billy on a pedestal. I can’t be his friend in the same way that I couldn’t TRULY be friends with Muhammad Ali or Russell Means or Wilma Mankiller or Nelson Mandela or Winona LaDuke or Martin Luther King, Jr. or my second grade teacher, Mrs. Kipp. I couldn’t be his friend in the same way that Grasshopper couldn’t be friends with Master Po or Beatrix Kiddo couldn’t be friends with Pei Mei—I mean, can you ever truly be friends with your hero, with someone you idolize?

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I idolized Billy. Still do. I’m a fan, not a friend. He brought out the starstruck little kid in me, just like the time I ran into Hulk Hogan on West 63rd Street in Manhattan. Except Uncle Billy made me feel more starstruck than Hulk Hogan did.

It’s funny. People talk about Uncle Billy’s power and the changes that he created and all of the amazing political work that he did. That’s cool. But that’s not, at all, the image I have of him. I know that he did all those amazing things that I read about or that I hear about—the arrests, the political strategies, the iconic activism. That’s what a lot of people admire about him—those things are powerful and a matter of historical record. But here’s why I idolize Uncle Billy: above everything else, Uncle Billy was an incredible dad—he loved his boys more than anything in the world. Even more than he loved the salmon for which he was willing to sacrifice his freedom. He loved his boys. He was always doing something incredible—world-changing—and you’d read about it in the newspapers or hear about it in political news. BUT…somehow he also always managed to be at ALL of Willie’s (and Sugar, when he played :-) ) basketball games, cheering and whooping like his sons’ games was the only thing that mattered in the world; as if all the political stuff was secondary to watching his boys play.

He loved his children passionately.

“This proud, screaming basketball dad is the world changer that we read about??” Indeed. It was. He did everything—he understood that strong Native FATHERHOOD was necessary to nurture and develop healthy Native men. Fatherhood is the most effective form of activism for Native men. Therefore, his BEST activism, his best work was not done in Washington, DC, or even on the Nisqually River, but at home. He raised strong young Native leaders, made us ALL better because—how could we not be?—we wanted to be like Uncle Billy. He made us all better men and now there is a generation of Native fathers who are better dads because we witnessed how Uncle Billy loved his kids passionately.

He worked globally AND locally. He was a leader in public, but also at home.

I’m thankful for the little bit of time that I got with Uncle Billy. I really didn’t deserve that time—I couldn’t offer him anything—but he and his family gave it to me (and many other disciples/students/acolytes) generously.

Thank you and love you Uncle Billy. Comfort to the Frank’s Landing Community and the family. 

Nicholas Galanin as Silver Jackson

Nicholas Galanin as Silver Jackson

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
New Book, How to Say I Love You in Indian—order today!!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi