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Native Currents

Message at 75: Listen to the salmon

(Editor’s note: Last month, respected elder Billy Frank Jr. celebrated his 75th birthday. His words of wisdom on the occasion are presented in Native Currents this week.)

OLYMPIA, Wash. – This week I am turning 75 years young – time for me to think about what to do with the next half of my life.

But seriously, everyone who knows me knows I’ll continue to fight, to the last breath, to help restore salmon to the rivers of the Pacific Northwest – at harvestable levels. If I am remembered by anyone in future generations, let it be as a fisherman.

Cutting back our fisheries so sharply over the past quarter-century to protect declining runs has been painful to Northwest Indians. The salmon’s decline has in no way been the fault of the tribes, but because our historic roots run so deep here we feel an ongoing responsibility, to our ancestors and the generations to come, to help solve the problem.

Tribes have worked hard to protect the salmon and their habitat. We’ve also worked hard to share our environmental history, so people can more fully understand our long-held legacy of Northwest stewardship. But with the population of our region expanding so dramatically, education of the masses is a mammoth undertaking.

Some people still think fishing is little more than a leisurely activity that bonds kids and grandparents on cool, spring mornings. It is that, but it is so much more. Salmon fishing is the true heritage of the Northwest. It has been our lifeblood for a thousand generations.

Throughout time, we have known that when harvestable runs of salmon return to Northwest rivers, it means good health and vitality to all who live here. It also means we have been respectful to the land. Teaching that ethic to the millions of newcomers has been no easy task. But I, for one, will keep trying.

Salmon are far more important to you, whoever you are, than the construction of new housing developments or box stores. They are far more important than oil-filled supertankers, the clearing of more forests or even the expansion of the freeway system. When salmon fill the rivers, the coastal waters and the Sound, they carry a message of sustainable prosperity, well-being and cultural strength – for everyone.

Those who learn to listen to the world that sustains them can hear the message brought forth by the salmon. The message is the same as it has always been: respect mother earth and father sky and they will continue to sustain you, and your children, forever. Pursue a vision of harmony, rather than bow to greed for short-term gains at the expense of long-term well-being, and your descendants will inherit a world filled with beauty

and sustenance.

Fishing has defined the spirit of our coastal region far longer than most can imagine. Reducing harvests even more is not the answer to bringing the fish back. We need to increase the runs so harvest can return.

Doing that takes spawning and rearing habitat. I have known my entire life that salmon were created to sustain all living things and that they serve as a measuring stick of our present and future physical and spiritual health.

If you learn to listen to the salmon and to respect them, you learn to respect yourself.

Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.