WASHINGTON - "Billy was out there, fishing on the river."
So began the informal reflections of John Echohawk, now the well known executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, but then a young attorney NARF had hired right out of law school. "Before long we were hearing stories from the Northwest, of Indian fishers being arrested, but with no one to defend them."
So continued "the trajectory of an extraordinary life," in the words of Jose Barreiro, senior editor of Indian Country Today newspaper - the life of Billy Frank Jr., formally honored Feb. 26 with the inaugural American Indian Visionary Award, presented by Indian Country Today at the National Press Club.
"As we strive to be among those who honor integrity in leadership, we come naturally to honor a man who personifies Native American political and social struggles, a man whose life embodies his cause, and who this year symbolizes and illuminates for us the path of effective leadership," said Barreiro.
Barreiro and Tim Johnson, executive editor, were on hand to relate the newspaper's own trajectory to a legitimately national status - an arduously thoughtful, painstakingly detailed four-year process. "We began by slowly cultivating what has become an exceptional editorial team and by focussing on publishing, over an extended period of time, a serious product that would exhibit depth, range, and impact," Johnson said. The editors believed they reached that goal in early 2003.
The newspaper's decision to offer the American Indian Visionary Award one year later was no coincidence - only with its own credentials in order, so to speak, could the newspaper bring the appropriate credibility and seriousness to its offering. Barreiro acknowledged Oneida Indian Nation ambassador Keller George, as well as the Oneida Nation Clan mothers and Men's Council for their strong backing of Native communications. The Oneida Nation is owner of the newspaper's parent corporation Four Directions Media.
Otherwise, the evening was all Billy Frank's.
All the way back in 1945, 14-year-old Frank underwent his first arrest for fishing in a "usual and accustomed" place of his Nisqually Tribe, at Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River. But state law did not recognize the treaty-authorized "usual and accustomed" fishing sites, so Frank went to jail many more times - about 50 all told, by his count, with more than a few beatings and a steady accompaniment of inflicted degradations along the way - before NARF caught up with him. Within a few years after that, however, the courts had issued the hallowed Boldt Decision, validating Indian treaty rights to 50 percent of the fish catch and shellfish take throughout the Northwest. A few years further on and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Boldt in the strongest terms, going so far as to chastise the State of Washington for continuing its futile quest to overturn it.
Thirty years on, the Boldt decision marks a turning point for all the Native Americas. It buttressed tribal culture; it protected a traditional livelihood for tribes and individual Indians alike. Washington state, with the complicity of BIA officials, had presided over "mineral grabs," forest and water seizures, all at the expense of tribes, at the same time that it asserted authority over fishing rights, according to Susan Hvalso Komori, an attorney who gathered background material for Frank in the Boldt case, in which he testified.
But in attacking treaty fishing rights, Washington state and its fish and game wardens went after "the core and center" of Native life in the Northwest, Komori said. By intervening in the central traditional activity of Indian men in the region, the state tried to break the continuity of tribal culture, in the process driving many Native men to alcoholism and the poorhouse.
Frank stood against them. He wasn't alone, as other heroic names from that place and time attest (activist Hank Adams and the late Joe De La Cruz of the Quinault Nation come to mind, among others). But he was among the first, and second to none in persistence.
Indeed, the career of Billy Frank Jr. illuminates a truth hated by every all-powerful establishment: where the law can do no right, to wrong the law may become a moral duty.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, the first of several speakers, obliquely acknowledged the magnitude of Frank's outlaw role in remarks that established a tone for the evening of great respect, and of good humor between abiding friends: "I think it pleases all of us here that our good friend is being honored? My job is to enact laws, and consequently I'm a law and order man? How many times does a senator turn out to honor an ex-con? This guy has been thrown in jail probably 30 times, but for the cause? All his life he has stood in harm's way for Indian life ? He's a good world citizen."
Johnson of Indian Country Today added: "There is no greater living example of these required leadership attributes than Billy Frank Jr. Sir, you have honored us time and again with your unflinching belief in and dedication to your tribal identity - you know who you are. And you have honored us by your commitment to your tribal history and all the inherent and retained powers that it holds - you have never let go. Your epic achievements are recognized and honored because they resonate throughout all of Indian country each and every day."
Suzan Shown Harjo, a member of the selection committee that bestowed the 2004 American Indian Visionary Award on Frank, drew a parallel between his non-violent stands, and the still more fiery trials of so many Native Americans before him: "Billy Frank is the person all the old people went through hell for, in the hope ? he would do them honor. Billy, I would follow you anywhere [in conflict]. And I would trust you to make the peace that follows."
The theme of peacemaking came on strong throughout the evening. For once the Boldt decision put him on the right side of the law, Frank poured his efforts into collaborating with others, including former foes in the state's anti-Indian ranks, to save the resources of fish, and later water and timber, for everyone. He realized immediately that Boldt would be a Pyrrhic victory if it provided tribes with 50 percent of a steeply dwindling resource, and set about to halt the decline in fish and shellfish numbers. As chairman for 25 years and counting of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, that has been his dominant task ever since.
Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., first elected to the House of Representatives shortly after the Boldt decision came down, experienced the more conciliatory half of Frank's long career. He paid handsome tribute to it in his remarks: "I can't think of anyone who has been so constructive."
Frank lived up to that estimation in his acceptance speech, deflecting attention from himself to an unsung heroine of Indian affairs - Patricia Zell, "one of our great people" in Frank's words. Zell is leaving the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs after almost 25 years, many of them as Inouye's staff director and chief counsel. (Under new Senate rules installed by the Republican majority, it's that or be fired.) But with Zell in the audience, Frank made it clear that her hard work and commitment, though little noticed in the public eye, will not be forgotten by Indian people: "If we can get a good professional life out of whoever it may be, we'll take care of them ? because they're there, they feel good because they've done something good, they've made a difference - they made a difference in my life."
Otherwise Frank praised Indian people and looked to the future of all people in a better world: "We've got Indian people working to make it better, better and better and better for all of us, for them as well as us? This is all of our country now, we have to protect it and make it better, always."
The awards ceremony concluded with a testimonial dinner for Frank. Friends and colleagues from the Northwest, Alaska, Canada, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere arose to offer words of thanks and praise, and quite often humor. The laughter and good feeling lasted far into the night.