Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) fought Washington State to honor treaties written in the 1850s giving Native Americans the right to fish their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”
When Billy passed on in May 2014, the New York Timescalled him “a defiant fighter for Native fishing rights,” a man who took a “leading role in what would become known as the ‘fish wars’ in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s and ‘70s.”
The Times celebrated Billy’s life, starting from his first arrest at age 14: “The crime was fishing. The year was 1945. The boy was 14. It was his first offense, but it would not be his last. Billy Frank Jr. continued to fish, and he continued to get arrested—more than 50 times over the next decades… The goal was to preserve the traditions he had been taught as a member of the Nisqually tribe, people who had fished for millenniums in the waters [that passed through their lands].”
The Times erred only in describing the Native fishing rights struggle as a “civil rights movement.” Indian rights to hunt and fish, to gather plants and practice ancient ways of living and livelihood are not “civil rights.” They are sovereign rights, the right to self-determination, as we will explore in a moment.
The Times got it right in summarizing the fishing cases that grew out of the Indian fishing struggle: “Mr. Frank wanted the state to honor treaties… in which Native Americans ceded more than two million acres in exchange for the right to fish their ‘usual and accustomed grounds and stations.’”
When the fishing cases finally reached a full court hearing under Federal District Judge George Boldt in 1974, the outcome was a resounding victory for Native Peoples. Judge Boldt ruled that, under the treaties, Indians have a right to catch up to half the salmon in their traditional waters. He ruled that they also have rights to co-manage the fisheries, along with the state of Washington.
Judge Boldt’s decision was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which left it standing as the leading case to this day on the subject of Indian fishing rights. Billy Frank’s activism strengthened Indian fishing rights across the continent.
On November 14, 2015, President Obama named Billy Frank a recipient of the highest civilian honor in the United States—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom honors people “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples underscores the international significance of Indian rights. One might say indigenous rights are indeed an aspect of “world peace” and “cultural endeavors.” The Declaration emphasizes the rights of Indigenous Peoples to “the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.”
To the extent the United States truly maintains a “government-to-government relationship” with Native Peoples, it will understand the significance of Indian fishing rights to “the interests of the United States.”
Obama’s statement about Billy Frank describes him as “a tireless advocate for Indian treaty rights and environmental stewardship, whose activism paved the way for the ‘Boldt decision,’ which reaffirmed tribal co-management of salmon resources in the state of Washington.”
The president said the “fish-ins” that Billy organized “were modeled after sit-ins of the civil rights movement.” That statement captures the ethos of the Native rights movement as a spiritual and community effort to sustain human rights, but it misses the difference between Indian sovereignty rights and civil rights.
Obama was closer to the mark when he stated, “Frank left in his wake an Indian country strengthened by greater sovereignty and a nation fortified by his example of service to one’s community, his humility, and his dedication to the principles of human rights and environmental sustainability.”
Native American sovereignty struggles differ markedly from civil rights. The surface aspects of certain conflicts may not reveal this difference. For example, controversies about the use of Native American images for sports mascots may appear as a conventional dispute about equality and respect for ethnic difference. But Native American issues go beyond equal treatment and respect for difference.
The deepest, most pervasive, and clearly persistent Indian issues—like fishing rights—are rooted in Native self-determination. These differ from civil rights because they involve group rights, especially rights to land and waters. To put it another way, Native struggles involve territorial integrity and group self-determination.
Native Americans interact with American politics not only as people, but, more profoundly, as Peoples. Native governments exist separate from state and federal jurisdictions. The history of federal Indian law demonstrates the tensions and limits of working out practical resolutions to the competing demands of these different sovereignties.
Native American assertions of “sovereignty” are not seeking a “fair share” in American society. They are declaring the existence of separate domains. The U.S. has developed federal Indian law as a response to the fact of separate Native existence. Major portions, if not all, of that body of law are designed to undercut separate Native existence and to squeeze Indians into a civil rights mold.
Judge Boldt’s decision constitutes a major exception to the squeeze of federal Indian law. His conclusion that Indians have a right to half the salmon catch was based on treaties, not on a simple notion of “fairness.”
Billy Frank Jr. may have emulated civil rights activism, but his actions were rooted in a movement for self-determination. That root distinguishes Native American activism from the activism of “minorities” in American politics.
We can appreciate the opportunity to acknowledge Native self-determination on the occasion presented by the Presidential Medal of Honor. But, as we remember Billy Frank, let us remember what he actually fought for and won. And let us insist that the interests of the United States and of world peace are served by upholding the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Native American sovereignty is not revolutionary. It is traditional. The struggle for Indian fishing rights was and is a struggle to preserve traditional self-government.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock, Arizona. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.