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The case for a Billy Frank statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall

There are seven Native American heroes now in the Statuary Hall. Billy Frank, Jr. deserves a spot too.
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It’s time for Billy Frank Jr. to have a place in the U.S. Capitol.

I can still hear his voice: “I was not a policy guy. I was a getting arrested guy.” Now, of course, the late Billy Frank Jr., is an American hero and to be clear, what I mean by that, he’s not just an American Indian hero. Or even a Nisqually or Northwest legend. His story is important to entire country. No, essential.

Every Frank arrest had purpose. He was making visible injustice and standing firm on the very word of the United States, the principle that treaties meant what they said. But the federal and state governments did not see it that way during the 1970s. So they tossed him in jail. Again. And again. And again.

A couple of decades later Frank convinced the entire establishment of the Pacific Northwest that he was, indeed, right. The same governors and federal officials who were once responsible for Frank’s arrests were praising (and appointing) him. The world had changed and the Northwest was better for it.

“Sixty-five years ago,” wrote Peter Hardin Jackson on Facebook, “The Marcus Whitman statue in D.C.'s National Statuary Hall was unveiled and is still something to behold. It's also emblematic of a very different era, which doesn't merit ballyhooing. An overdue corrective would be to replace Whitman with Billy Frank, Jr., who dedicated his life to political reconciliation, tribal treaty rights, and the environment.”

Jackson pointed out this could be done quickly. “All that's required is a non-fiscal note act of the state legislature, and the launch of a private fundraising campaign,” he said. “What say you, dear people?”

The idea of a Frank statue is exciting. (I’d like to think Washington is unique because it could send two statutes to the hall, yes to Frank and also to Lucy Covington, Colville, who led the fight against termination.)

There are seven Native American heroes now in the Statuary Hall, the most recent addition was Po’pay, representing New Mexico in 2005. The others are: King Kamehameha I, Hawaii; Will Rogers, Oklahoma; Sequoyah, Oklahoma; Washakie, Wyoming; Sarah Winnemucca, Nevada; and, Sakakawea, North Dakota. The hall also features notable “anti-heroes” in Indian Country including Andrew Jackson from Tennessee and Father Junipero Serra, California.

There are seven Native American heroes now in the Statuary Hall.

There are seven Native American heroes now in the Statuary Hall.

There are so many other Native Americans whose stories ought to be included in the national discourse. For example: Alaska should have civil rights leader Elizabeth Jean Peratrovich as one of its representatives. Make that a must.

Congress has honored Frank’s memory at least once by naming the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington’s Nisqually Delta.

In Jackson’s Facebook discussion, attorney Tom Keefe (and a long time ally of Billy Frank) suggested term limits for statutes. He wrote, “New and future heroes are born every day, why should we be forever stuck in the past?”

Joel Connelly of the Seattle P-I wrote about this Facebook exchange Friday. “A replica of the U.S. Capitol statue sits in Walla Walla, with the missionary depicted as a ‘buckskin clap frontiersman, striding resolutely into the future, a Bible in one hand and saddle bags and a scroll in the other,’ in words of a article,” Connelly said. “But Whitman College has had second thoughts.” The school replaced its mascot, The Fighting Missionaries, with “the Whitman Blues" after the Blue Mountains that loom behind the campus.

After that column, Jackson wrote, so there is no choice “but to draft legislation for the 2019 session. As Billy Frank, Jr. said, ‘I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are.’”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter Follow @TrahantReports