OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure this week that starts the process of honoring the late Billy Frank Jr. — a Nisqually tribal citizen who championed treaty rights and protecting the environment — with a statue at the U.S. Capitol.
Inslee signed the measure at Wa He Lut Indian School in the Nisqually community north of Olympia, joined by Nisqually tribal leaders.
Among those at the signing was Nisqually Indian Tribe Treasurer David Iyall. He said Frank was one of the most beloved tribal leaders, and it was good to hear stories about Frank from others in attendance.
“It was just a great, joyous occasion,” Iyall said. “Everybody was in good spirits, everybody's really happy, real positive, real positive day.”
The measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature with bipartisan support, starts the legal process to replace Washington's Marcus Whitman statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection with a statue of Frank, who died in 2014 at age 83.
"Billy Frank Jr. was a warrior for justice," Inslee said before signing the bill. "In addition to being a warrior for justice, he was a warrior for the natural world and the values we hold so dear in the state of Washington."
Regarding the bipartisan support, Iyall said it was amazing to see and shows the respect that Frank garnered over the years.
“I think that really shows a lot with our relationship with the state," Iyall said. "People, thanks to Billy and the work that he did; this generation that is our leaders now, they realize the importance of our environment and those words that he said they understand what that meant. People are starting to work together in this area on both sides of the political arena [and] are really understanding the importance of bringing our environment back to good shape.”
Frank was first arrested for salmon fishing as a boy in 1945 — an event that led him on a long campaign for tribal rights. He and others were repeatedly arrested as they staged "fish ins" demanding the right to fish in their historical waters, as they were guaranteed in treaties when they ceded land to white settlers in the 19th century. Frank was jailed more than 50 times.
The efforts were vindicated in 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes' right to half of the fish harvest — and the nation's obligation to honor the old treaties.
Over the next 40 years, Frank continued to advocate for tribal fishing rights and the protection of natural resources, including salmon.
“He really opened up the eyes of the nation to our fishing rights. That's where it started,” Iyall said. “Then he opened up the eyes of the nation to the importance of our salmon.”
The National Statuary Hall Collection features 100 statues, with each state contributing statues of two notable deceased residents. Washington's current honorees are Whitman, an Oregon Trail pioneer and missionary, and Mother Joseph, a Catholic nun who founded hospitals and schools after arriving in the state from Canada in the mid-1800s.
Under the measure, Inslee must write to the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library by Sept. 30 to request they remove the Whitman statue and replace it with a statue of Frank. The Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee — created under the bill passed by the Legislature — will act on behalf of the state in carrying out the replacement process.
The measure also requires the governor to coordinate with Walla Walla County, the site of the Whitman Mission established by Marcus Whitman, to carry out the relocation and transfer of ownership of the Whitman statue.
Democratic Rep. Debra Lekanoff, the sponsor of the measure and an Alaska Native who is Tlingit and Aleut, told those gathered for the bill signing that Frank, Jr. will stand in Washington, D.C., among other great leaders "as the great man that he is."
"And he will tell the story of who we are as Native American people," she said. "He will make sure that your children's children's children, of this great America, will know who you are and where you come from."
Along with those next steps for Inslee, Iyall hopes the final step ends with another gathering on the east coast.
“Right now, we're gonna work on getting a statue put together and hopefully get a big group to drive it over to D.C.”
Indian Country Today contributed to this report,