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Thirty years after Boldt: Honoring Billy Frank Jr.

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Thirty years after the Boldt Decision of 1974, that landmark Indian fishing rights victory still means different things to different people. But there is one point of unity about that time from that time: Billy Frank Jr.'s exemplary life of struggle for Indian people symbolizes the meaning of the Boldt decision and the fight to sustain the Indian ways of life.

Our own Indian Country Today editorial circle celebrated the life and times of Billy Frank Jr. on Feb. 26, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Several U.S. senators and representatives as well as dozens of tribal leaders, joined our editors, columnists and contributors in awarding the Nisqually elder and veteran social change activist with the inaugural American Indian Visionary Award.

Billy Frank Jr. is definitely to be remembered and celebrated this month. As Washington state commemorates the 30th anniversary of U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt's ground-shaking decision, Frank is widely credited as conscience and soul of the efforts by Indian people in Washington to secure their rights to a fair share of fish on their ancient waterways and, by implication and serious struggle, the effort to ensure the survival of steelhead and salmon.

An article in the Washington state media recently credited "the lower Nisqually River watershed on the Thurston County border," Billy Frank Jr.'s home area, as the "home of the treaty tree, which stands sentinel over the site where Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens and South Sound tribes signed the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854."

Medicine Creek was the treaty examined by the courts in the Boldt Decision and upon which a radical new, pro-tribal policy of fish allocation in the region has been developed since the 1980s. The Boldt decision re-affirmed for 19 Western Washington treaty tribes the right to half of the harvestable salmon and steelhead in the region. It redefined state fisheries and salmon management. Legal experts regard it as one of the most important rulings on natural resource allocation in Pacific Northwest history.

Before there was an American Indian Movement, there was Frank's Landing, the 6-acre riverfront homestead, where the first Indian lance of protest activism was stuck in the ground in the early 1960s. Those were the years of political fish-ins - sometimes with Marlon Brando or Jane Fonda - when Indian activists were often assaulted and shot at. Billy Frank Jr. logged over 50 arrests, starting at age 14, for protest fishing. The Indian message was that their right to fish was guaranteed by treaty, but needed standing before the courts. The contention grew very heated. One incident in 1970 saw some 200 state game wardens and police sweep into an Indian fishing camp on the Puyallup River, lobbing tear gas and swinging clubs. The beatings and subsequent arrest of 60 Indian fishing people, including Frank, made headlines, and it advanced the tribal cause: U.S. Attorney Stan Pitkin witnessed the police mayhem and was prompted to file a lawsuit on behalf of the tribes. This is the action that got the treaty into court and led to the Boldt decision of 1974, later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.

Throughout, Billy Frank Jr. was leader and encouragement for the many Indian fishing families who suffered injury and harassment on the path to taking their treaty to court. A Marine Corps veteran, Frank would not be intimidated. He symbolized the defiance that propelled Indian treaty fishing rights issues, in the media and among Indian peoples, and in the courts.

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Beyond the early acrimony brought on by the Boldt decision, tribes and commercial fishing enterprises and the state have forged innovative partnerships in co-management. But colliding interests at first were overheated in attacking each other. Non-tribal commercial fishing companies and individuals continued to fish beyond their quotas for several years. Conversely, some tribal bases were involved in over netting and thus also forced a depletion of resources in at least one river.

Ownership ultimately sees to the responsibility of properly managing its resources. By the mid-1980s, with lots of sage counsel from elders like Billy Frank Jr., the movement to co-manage became the policy. The tribes took the responsibility seriously and today boast more biologists and chemists than the state. A serious process is now in place and though not always successful, it has the ear and respect of most politicians and media.

Many factors have punished the fish runs, particularly for salmon and steelhead. Bad ocean conditions over many years in the 1980s to the early 1990s, coupled to habitat loss and to historic over-harvesting of some stocks seriously diminished the runs. Two other major obstacles to healthy runs are hydroelectric dams and the effect of hatcheries (tame stock) on wild salmon runs.

Against great odds, the efforts to bring back the salmon and other fish have paid off since the crisis year of 1994. In the five years since Puget Sound Chinook and six other salmon and steelhead populations were listed by the Endangered Species Act, fishing has recovered substantially, according to the Olympian, a Washington newspaper.

There is a long way to go yet. The Boldt decision was only the beginning. Billy Frank Jr. himself continues to exhort all people to care more for natural resource issues, if salmon stocks, which are still in decline, are to recover. Boldt already has stimulated great structural growth by the tribes in the field of natural resources, but "the promise remains to be fulfilled," Frank emphasizes these days, while encouraging the tribes and everyone to protect the environment for all species.

For his untiring work, once again, a heartfelt salute to Billy Frank Jr. On the 30th anniversary of Boldt, on your half a century of struggle, on receiving the 2004 American Indian Visionary Award, congratulations.

We are honored to honor you.