A pole honoring the late Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) now stands at Wa He Lut Indian School at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually reservation in Washington State.
The Salmon Totem Pole stands not far from where Frank and others were arrested multiple times for exercising their treaty fishing rights in the Fish Wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Stand here at this historic, ancestral place, and you’re standing on ground that was the center of efforts leading to the 1974 federal court decision upholding Indigenous Peoples’ inherent right to fish.
It was a battle to defend a people’s cultural and spiritual survival.
“We were fighting for our life—our survival,” Frank told one of his biographers, Trova Heffernan, in the book Where the Salmon Run: The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank Jr.
The cultural and spiritual relationship between salmon and Pacific Northwest Indigenous Peoples dates to the beginning of time, Frank said. “The Creator is the one who brought us here. The Creator put that salmon there for us to survive. And all the shellfish … We respected all of them,” he said.
The pole was dedicated on January 23, Founders Day at Wa He Lut Indian School. The honor pole was carved by Lummi Nation master carver Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers, and depicts a salmon atop a stanchion of running waters.
Frank, who passed away on May 5, 2014 at age 83, was the longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He spent much of his life defending the environment, the salmon, and treaty rights—not just Northwest treaty rights, but treaty rights elsewhere in the United States. After the 1974 court decision, he worked to improve and protect the health of the environment, forging partnerships—sometimes unlikely ones—and holding the U.S. government accountable for its treaty responsibilities.
Frank served as fisheries manager of the Nisqually Indian Tribe from 1975-1988; chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in 1977 and from 1981-2014; member of the Board of Trustees of The Evergreen State College, 1996-2003; and a founding board member of Salmon Defense, a non-profit whose mission is to “protect and defend Pacific Northwest salmon and salmon habitat,” from 2003-2014.
Among the honors he received: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award, for humanitarian achievement; and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.
“From time to time, and only if we are lucky enough, we meet and get to know people who are just larger than life,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said at his funeral in May 2014. “They’re the people who have so much personality, so much ability and so much passion and love in their hearts that it’s hard to believe that it could be contained in just one person. They’re the people who don’t just make an argument, they hold a fish-in; they build a movement. They don’t just raise their voices to be heard, they bang down the doors in state capitols and national capitols until they’ve had their say. And they do not flinch in the face of opposition, regardless of whether it’s intolerance or arrest or abuse. Billy was one of those people.”
Now, the Salmon Totem Pole stands as a reminder to students of Frank’s courage, tenacity and life work—and of the students’ responsibility to be good caretakers of the environment that sustains us.