Billy Frank Jr.’s funeral was less a time of mourning and more a time of celebration for all he did in defense of treaty rights and Native sovereignty and the environment.
The natural world seemed to be saying just that on May 11. Almost two inches of rain had fallen in the days after Frank’s passing on May 5, but on this day, as his body was laid to rest at Chief Leschi Cemetery on the Nisqually reservation, the sky stopped weeping. The sun was bright and warm, as if to say, “The time to mourn is over. It’s time to get to work.”
And there’s a lot of work to do. The state is under court order to remove fish-blocking culverts throughout the region. State pollution standards have to be toughened so fish are healthier to eat. The marine ecosystem is being undermined by ocean acidification. Coal and oil transport/export proposals threaten our waters and our communities. The federal government has to take the lead on enforcing laws protecting salmon habitat. Brothers and sisters elsewhere in Indian country are fighting for their rights to fish and hunt and harvest.
No single person will be able to carry the mantle of Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 34 years, a defender of treaty rights and human rights throughout Indian country, a mediator who guided opposing sides to agreement to measures to protect fish and streams and forests, an environmental warrior who helped bring down two dams on the Elwha River, a winner of an Emmy Award for a series on Indian country, a recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism for “exemplary contributions to humanity and the environment.”
He lived to 83 but “led the equivalent of three lifetimes,” said Robert Whitener, Squaxin, coordinator of Frank’s funeral service.
No, his mantle will be carried by many. The national and state capitols that once had Billy Frank Jr. to contend with can now expect to face multitudes that worked with him or were inspired by him.
“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 service. “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.”
Frank’s funeral service at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort Event Center was attended by more than 2,000 people; that’s the seated capacity of the event center and it was standing room only. More people watched the service on big screens in tents set up on the event center grounds. Another 1,000 watched the funeral via live stream. Some estimates put the funeral attendance at 6,000.
Speakers included U.S. senators, past and present members of Congress, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, state legislators, and leaders or representatives of several indigenous nations.
The common thread in the day’s remarks was empowerment.
NCAI President Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish, said Frank taught that if people stand together, stand up for what is right, they will never be defeated. They might see setbacks and face seemingly insurmountable challenges, “but as long as we keep fighting and stick together, victory is assured,” Cladoosby said.
Frank’s life set the example. He was arrested more than 50 times for fishing on his ancestral waters, yet saw the U.S. Supreme Court uphold his treaty right to fish as the supreme law of the land. He was arrested, often brutally, and his rights were violated for the first half of his life, yet he never held a grudge and instead believed in the capacity of opposing sides to find middle ground. He could speak passionately, even cuss for emphasis, but he always treated others with respect.
Cladoosby said Frank could “lay into” a federal or state official about how he felt they were failing to do their jobs or live up to their promises, and then “in the same breath tell them that he understood the challenges they faced and wanted to help them succeed.”
Frank knew what was truth – the treaties and human rights and our responsibility to the environment that sustains us – and he didn’t waver in his defense of the truth. Lawmakers and policy makers in state capitols and in the nation’s capital knew where he stood on the truth and that he wasn’t going to back down. That’s how he got things done.
Frank is often referred to as an indigenous-rights leader, but Makah Chairman T.J. Greene said Frank was more than that: He was a fighter for the rights of all people, an environmental warrior who knew that all people – Native and non-Native – benefit from clean water and a healthy environment and healthy fish.
“He loved his people, his family,” Greene said. “When I say his people, I mean all of us. That’s how Billy viewed it – all of us … It didn’t matter where you came from.”
Even as he walked on, Frank was still teaching with every story shared, every recounting of work to be done.
“We all have the responsibility, the duty, to our future generations, to our grandchildren’s grandchildren, to save those things which we hold most dear in our natural environment – for them,” Greene said.
Anthropologist and author Richard Nelson, a defender of old-growth rainforest in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, once said, "History may not remember you well for what you've done for industry. But history has always treated well the one who said, 'Protect this wild place.'"
History will always treat well the life of Billy Frank Jr. and those who carry on his work.
Speakers at Billy Frank Jr.’s funeral service May 11, 2014:
Norm Dicks, former member, U.S. House of Representatives
Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp
Charles Wilkinson, lawyer and author, “Messages from Frank’s Landing”
Patricia Zell, former chief counsel, U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
Thomas P. Keefe Jr., lead counsel in numerous Indian fishing rights cases in the Pacific Northwest.
David Lopeman, chairman, Squaxin Island Tribe
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Bremerton
Willie Hensley, Alaska Federation of Natives
Brian Cladoosby, president, National Congress of American Indians
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington
Richard Trudell, Santee Sioux, founder and executive director of the American Indian Lawyer Training Program, Inc.
Washington Gov, Jay Inslee
Lorraine Loomis, Swinomish, vice chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Keith Harper, Cherokee, a lawyer for the plaintiff in the Cobell case
State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Lacey
Ed Johnstone, Quinault, treasurer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Glen Gobin, treasurer, Tulalip Tribes
Scott Aikin, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, deputy BIA regional director.
Stillaguamish Tribe Chairman Shawn Yanity
Makah Nation Chairman T.J. Greene
Justin Parker, Makah, NWIFC intergovernmental affairs policy adviser
Livestream of Billy Frank Jr.’s funeral service can be seen here.