Skip to main content

The Fire That Was Billy Frank Jr.; Indian Country’s Greatest Defender

Billy Frank Jr. was called a living legend, a hero, and a seminal figure in the northwest coastal tribes’ struggles and on May 5 he walked on.

“I tell my people to get ready. Get your smokehouses back in shape. Don’t forget the ceremonies. That guy, the salmon, he’s coming back.” Billy Frank Jr. (Legacy Project)

He was called a living legend, a visionary leader, a hero, warrior, revolutionary, peacemaker, and a seminal figure in the northwest coastal tribes’ struggle to protect their sovereignty and assert their treaty fishing rights. And as word spread on Monday that Billy Frank Jr. had walked on, expressions of condolence to his family and praise for his life and legacy poured forth.

RELATED: Billy Frank Jr., 1931-2014: ‘A Giant’ Will Be Missed

A citizen of the Nisqually Indian Tribe and a fisherman of the sacred salmon, Frank became world renowned as the leader of the northwest “fish wars” in the 1960s and 1970s when protesters held “fish-ins” aimed specifically at asserting their treaty-protected fishing rights and, more broadly, their resistance to being culturally assimilated into American society.

Molly Neely-Walker

Billy Frank Jr. walked on May 6

Frank’s death was announced by the Nisqually Indian Tribe near Olympia, Washington, “The Nisqually people are mourning the sudden passing of Billy Frank Jr. this morning,” the tribe said on its website. “Billy dedicated his life to protecting our traditional way of life and our salmon. For more than 60 years, Billy was the center of action on behalf of the Nisqually people and of Native Americans throughout our country. Along the way, Billy achieved national and international recognition as a towering figure protecting treaty fishing rights, natural resources and the environment. Billy will be sorely missed and long remembered. On behalf of the Nisqually people, the tribal council expresses our sincerest condolences to Billy’s family.”

Nisqually Chairwoman Cynthia Iyall sent this personal note to ICTMN in response to a request for comment: “Billy will always be in the hearts of Nisqually people. Not only was his amazing life's work something people here will remember but also he will be remembered for his presence on the level of being father and uncle. So many here called Billy Uncle -- a sincere appreciation of having him as a close family member. There are so many heavy hearts today and there will be for a long time to come. Possibly we can all have happiness in the fact that Billy was a true Nisqually and we were all blessed to have him in our lives.”

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), which Frank chaired for more than 30 years, also posted a notice of his passing. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of our great leader and good friend, Billy Frank Jr. He was a champion for treaty rights, the salmon and a better quality of life for all of us who live here. Our thoughts are with his family,” Lorraine Loomis, Swinomish tribal fisheries manager and NWIFC vice chair, wrote.

Born in 1931, Frank was arrested for the first time for salmon fishing as a boy in 1945 — the first step on his lifelong effort to protect both tribal rights and the threatened or endangered anadromous salmon that migrate across the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the rushing streams and rivers of the northwest aboriginal territories where they hatched. The salmon is central to the identity of the northwest Salmon People, shaping their culture, diets, societies and religion, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC).

Frank’s passing is “a monumental loss” to Indian country, Paul Lumley, CRITFC’s executive director, said in a statement. “Billy was a staunch advocate for tribal sovereignty and treaty reserved fishing rights as well as the region’s salmon populations. His impacts knew no boundaries and were often felt from the streams of the Pacific Northwest to the halls of Washington, D.C. Billy was a living icon whose legacy will be seen in every fish return, every tribal fishery and every battle for those resources that has yet to be fought.”

During the decade-long fish wars, Frank and the protestors were repeatedly arrested and detained as they demanded the right to fish in their historical territories – a right that was guaranteed in 19th century treaties signed by the federal government in exchange for land ceded for white settlers.

Richard Walker

Billy Frank Jr. enjoys the celebration of the beginning of dam removal on the Elwha River, September 2011. The dams blocked fish passage. Their removal is the largest dam removal project in the United States.

President Obama noted Frank’s multiple arrests in a statement released Monday night and went on to say, “Today, thanks to his courage and determined effort, our resources are better protected, and more tribes are able to enjoy the rights preserved for them more than a century ago. Billy never stopped fighting to make sure future generations would be able to enjoy the outdoors as he did, and his passion on the issue of climate change should serve as an inspiration to us all. I extend my deepest sympathies to the Nisqually Indian Tribe, and to Billy’s family, and to his many friends who so greatly admired him.”

Frank was “an undaunted defender of and respected elder statesman for tribal treaty fishing rights,” Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn said in a statement. “His wisdom on the importance of conservation and the protection of natural resources has been recognized by all who love the great outdoors. Thanks to his leadership and years of hard work, we can continue to appreciate the great gifts of nature that are still with us and the tribes of the Pacific Northwest can still rely on the salmon to sustain them for generations to come. Thank you, Billy, for your tireless work for Indian country and our nation.” Washburn extended condolences on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to Frank’s family, friends and colleagues.

Frank and the fishing rights activists won a legal victory in 1974 when U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes' treaty-protected fishing rights – and the federal government’s obligation to honor them – and established the tribes as natural resources co-managers with the State of Washington. The Boldt decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

RELATED: 40 Years Later: Boldt Decision Celebrations With Some Caution

“It was well known throughout the world that Billy was instrumental in bringing about the Boldt decision and people throughout the world hailed that victory,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians, told ICTMN. “We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of that achievement and, thank God, Billy was able to witness that celebration.”

Richard Walker

Billy Frank Jr. enjoys the celebration of the beginning of dam removal on the Elwha River, September 2011. The dams blocked fish passage. Their removal is the largest dam removal project in the United States.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Cladoosby worked with Frank for the past 30 years of his political life on the Swinomish council, the past 18 years as chair. “I’m saddened by the tragic loss of a great warrior. He was class, he was genuine, he was real. What you saw is what you got. He wasn’t afraid to tell you how he felt. He wasn’t fake. He just loved his Indian people. He always told everybody, you have a story, tell your story, your kids have a story, our elders, we have a story to tell that others need to hear,” Cladoosby said Monday evening as he was driving to Frank’s family home. “A lot of the things today that we take for granted, Billy and our elders had to fight for. We can never forget that fight. And we always have to – in his memory – continue that fight for our treaty rights.”

Frank was particularly inspiring to the Wabanaki nations in Maine where the Penobscot Nation is continuing the fight for treaty rights in a federal lawsuit against the state. Frank was scheduled to appear as a keynote speaker at the United South and Eastern Tribes semi-annual meeting in June, which is being hosted by the Wabanaki nations in Bar Harbor, Maine.

RELATED: Feds Join Penobscot Suit Against State of Maine on Fishing Rights

“Billy was an inspiration – as a river people and with fishing being a huge part of our identity it seems that in our struggle with the state over our rights within our river his name has surfaced often over the years as an example of what can happen when one person cares enough to act in a way he believes in,” Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis told ICTMN. “We all know about the historic Boldt decision, but it was obvious it was not about winning one case to him, but about a generational benefit for Indian people to protect our future, customs and cultural way of life. That example has served as a guide for us all in these fights. The Penobscot Nation is grateful for all he did, we will miss his leadership and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and people.”

Frank didn’t stop his work once the Boldt decision was rendered, however. Since 1974, he continued to advocate for tribal fishing rights, protection of the environment and the restoration of salmon habitat in the northwest.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy honored Frank’s “courageous environmental leadership,” calling him “an historic and heroic leader of his generation” and one of America’s “greatest voices for justice.” “Billy has been a close friend and partner to the Environmental Protection Agency over the past four decades … and one of the most forward thinking environmental leaders of our time,” McCarthy wrote in a statement Monday.

“His ability to bring together leaders from all sectors to further the protection of critical natural resources resulted in a resurgence of momentum on natural resource conversation, cultural preservation, the protection of fish, treaty rights, and climate change,” she said. “Through his tireless efforts, as a passionate voice for the protection of our air, water, and land, EPA’s own tribal efforts were strongly influenced in the early 1990s as we created an office to more directly address tribal issues across the country. We will, in that spirit, continue working to strengthen our government-to-government relationship and partnership with tribal citizens.”

In a 2012 column in ICTMN, Frank urged the federal government to take the lead on a salmon recovery effort.

RELATED: We Need to Win the Battle for Salmon Recovery

“We are losing the battle for salmon recovery in western Washington because salmon habitat is being destroyed faster than it can be restored,” Frank wrote. “Despite massive cuts in harvest, careful use of hatcheries and a huge financial investment in restoration during the past four decades, salmon continue to decline along with their habitat. As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.”

Courtesy Deborah Parker

During a November 2013 trip to Washington, D.C.: From left, Billy Frank Jr., Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Paulette Jordan, Coeur d'Alene, and Deborah Parker, Tulalip.

Frank continued his activism and environmental advocacy until the end of his life, traveling and speaking out at every opportunity. “Two weeks ago, the entire room fell silent at a tribal summit held at the Suquamish reservation in Washington to listen as Billy spoke forcefully and passionately about the need to tackle the growing threat of climate change,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, calling Frank “a true giant” in a statement Monday. “Billy shared a great sense of urgency that we come together as one people to work toward practical solutions to address its impacts. To honor his life of service, let us redouble our efforts to do everything we can to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities and to partner with tribes across the country on caring for our lands, waters and wildlife.” She extended condolences to Frank’s families and friends on behalf of the Interior Department.

Last month, Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation, testified with Frank at the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee “and he was still fighting to get full funding for the salmon,” Hall said in a statement. “Billy never changed – he was always a fighter for the Northwest tribes, the Salmon which he loved, and the treaties. He will always be a legend. He was a warrior and his legacy lives on in the lifeblood of the people, the fish, and the waters we depend upon.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker called Frank “a beloved leader, warrior and advocate for tribal sovereignty” in a statement Monday and said indigenous citizens throughout the world lost “a true champion” with Frank’s passing. “He was ahead of his time in his commitment to natural resource preservation. Throughout Indian country, we all knew Billy as a man who led by example, campaigned for fairness and Indian people, and defended tribal traditions. He will be missed immensely, and we at the Cherokee Nation are keeping his family and his tribe in our thoughts and prayers," Baker said.

Courtesy Deborah Parker

During a November 2013 trip to Washington, D.C.: From left, Billy Frank Jr., Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Paulette Jordan, Coeur d'Alene, and Deborah Parker, Tulalip.

Brian Patterson, a citizen of the Oneida Indian Nation and president of USET, was at a meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians where tribal leaders rose and paused in silent respect and reverence when Frank’s passing was announced.

“Billy was our Nelson Mandela,” Patterson said. “He was our great liberator by his example that led to the Boldt decision but also our great liberator in thought and spirit of being Indian.”

Referring to the question, “What does it mean to be Indian?” in Sherman Alexie’s book The Toughest Indian in the World, Patterson said that after much reflection, “I would say it means being Billy Frank. We look around Indian country and we see a lot of great people that are like bright sparks of light, working to bring change for our children and our children’s children but when Billy was in the room, he brought the fire.

“Right now Indian country is grieving, the family is grieving. Their hearts are on the ground, the tears flow freely, “ Patterson said, “but we’ll stand ready to dry those tears and lift those hearts off the ground and only then will we find comfort in the love and legacy that is Billy Frank.”