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Harjo: Billy Frank Jr., A warrior with wisdom and an elder with courage

You know you have a blessed life when your friends are among the most impressive and wonderful people you've ever met or read about or seen on T.V. Billy Frank Jr., is just such a friend.

From his Pacific Northwest home to Capitol Hill and back by any route, hundreds of diverse people in ordinary and lofty places consider Billy Frank a good friend, even a best friend. No matter what clout, net worth, education or position they may have, he treats everyone equally well, and people change into their best selves around him.

Billy Frank Jr. is being awarded Indian Country Today's first Visionary Award. He deserves it.

Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for a quarter of a century, he is a strong advocate, an effective negotiator and a peacemaker who has successfully turned polarized fights over resources into combined efforts to save and enhance salmon, shellfish, trees, endangered species and entire ecosystems.

Sincere and still in ceremony and joyous and buoyant in celebration, he has dedicated his life to serving and protecting Native peoples, the land, the water and all living beings.

"As I travel around the country, I see a lot of tribes still down, and Indians eating surplus food and selling beer bottles - we've all been there and we don't want to be there again," says Frank.

"We need to get the infrastructure up and strong for all the tribes. We're on the right course, getting more elders' housing, circulating more capital. Our gaming tribes are always on the move to expand, but we need to be buying land back, too, and our watersheds and aquifers, whole aquifers, because we don't know what they're doing to our water."

And that's Billy - for every situation, a gentle nudge or a jump-start in the direction of a plan, a big idea.

Everyone calls him Billy, even at 72. His father, William Frank Sr., answered to the name Willie for all of his 104 years. Billy's youngest son, 21, is named Willie Frank, too.

The Franks come from generations of Nisqually families who fished along the Nisqually River. Their fishing rights were affirmed by the United States in the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty with the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin Island nations.

Billy's large extended family starts with the Frank's Landing Indian Community, just outside Olympia, Wash. Named after his father, the Landing is home to the WaHeLut Indian School, which is governed by Billy's sister Maiselle Bridges, the Community's beloved matriarch, and her daughters Alison Gottfriedson and Suzette Bridges (both Nisqually and Puyallup).

"Billy is great with adults, but he's even better with children," says writer Hank Adams, Assiniboine and Sioux, a community member, advisor and strategist since the mid-1960s. "He talks to a lot of students, from pre-school to college, and of all races. And for 50 years in a large family of relatives, he's missed very few celebrations of birthdays for each of their children."

"That's it," says Billy. "That's our vision, educating ourselves, making our own people strong. They're there, our Indian kids. Our little guys are talking their own language and teaching it to their parents. These younger kids are waking up and getting ready to take our place."

Frank's Landing was at the heart of the fish wars on the water and in the court. On one side were over 20 Native nations and the federal government asserting that federal-tribal treaties provided for Indian fishing in Washington. On the other side were the state's "rights" to ignore treaties, stop Indians from fishing and jail resisters.

Both Billy and Willie Frank were witnesses in federal Judge George H. Boldt's 1973 trial in U.S. v. Washington. Willie testified about the Nisqually origin and history in their traditional homelands and waterways of the Nisqually River, where they fished for food, ceremony and trade.

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Billy testified about decades of being battered and jailed for fishing by the state's fish and game wardens. His first of more than 50 arrests was in 1945, when he was only 14. His oldest son, Tobin ("Sugar"), was first arrested for fishing in 1970, when he was nine.

A few months after the trial, on Feb. 12, 1974, Judge Boldt ruled that Indian treaty fishers could take 50 percent of the allowable catch of salmon and steelhead for ceremonies, commerce and subsistence, and could fish in their usual and accustomed fishing places, both on and off the reservations.

The state appealed the Indians' victory. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote its own decision in favor of treaty fishing, upholding the Boldt principles. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Indians were still being hunted for fishing and, in the nation's Capitol, some of the incoming was friendly fire. After oral arguments to the high court, the top natural resources official in the Justice Department tried to convince various tribal leaders to settle at 15 percent or 20 percent of the harvestable fish catch, saying they would lose and end up with zero percent.

Billy was one of the main people who convinced the others to not run scared. On July 2, 1979, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate decision. Washington, which had fought treaty fishing in the federal courts five times that century, was chided for its recalcitrance and told not to bring the case back to court. It was a resounding win for Indian treaty rights.

"I always thought Billy was the model for Billy Jack - the solitary guy who is everywhere protecting the people and their rights," said Vine Deloria Jr. ,Standing Rock Sioux, author, historian, attorney and a longtime friend of Billy's.

"You can't begin to count the times he had been beaten and thrown in jail," said Deloria. "Yet, in the end, he has become a senior statesman of the state of Washington, respected and admired by people all over the state who once called for his scalp.

"He shows what a few people can do when they stand up for principles."

Billy says he's "really proud of what we've all done in our time. We're still the bad guys every time we walk through the door. We've still got the right-wingers telling everyone we're not here. But, we're not underground anymore and we are finally getting society's attention.

"We've just got to stay on the front lines as long as we can. There's nobody that we're afraid to sit down and negotiate with, because we have our teams of experts and lawyers, and we still have people in Congress who know what's right."

Adams says that Billy's life is a "testament to how much can be built for a society and a people from selflessness. He's drawn that from his family and he's carried it to all the Indian nations of the Northwest, whom he serves constantly - with little sleep and with regular 16-to-20-hour days. He's always adding on the mileage to his 'fish wagon.' And now, with cell phone technology, his drive time is work time, too."

Billy's mind is "steeped in a living history that goes back three centuries," says Adams. "Canoes in his life sprang from seed that long ago. In testimony for one of the Boldt trials, he told of the creation of Indian people here, when lifted from the beach by an eagle or thunderbird and emerging from the shell of a clam. He could feel Creation's lingering grains upon him while testifying, and gestured to brush some off and away into the courtroom."

Adams predicts that Billy's "personal legacy" will be that "Indian children of a century coming shall yet know a great deal about those original sands and the First People."

"Here's our vision, too," says Billy, "and a hope. We are taking our place in society, and we need time. We have to hope that society gives us time to manage our money and bring back all our animals and eagles. That will take time. If we can heal all that stuff that's between us - between tribes, Indians and non-Indians - and keep going, we can do it all."

Our Cheyenne people say we should choose our friends as we would choose people to take into battle. I would go into battle with Billy any time. Not only is he fearless and loyal in the fight, but he can be counted on to make the peace that must follow. That is visionary.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.