Billy Frank Jr.: An important civil rights leader

The OlympianMay 9, 2014 

Before he died this week, American icon Billy Frank Jr. lived to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Boldt Decision, in which he played a central role.

And he lived to hear the state of Washington apologize for its heavy-handed actions during the 1960s Fish Wars by offering to vacate the numerous criminal convictions that he and other tribal fishing rights activists had accumulated.

We hope those small affirmations of his life’s work help him rest in peace.

Frank, who was born in 1931, was arrested for the first time in 1945 for exercising his treaty right to fish in the Nisqually River and its tributary, Muck Creek. In the long and painful struggle to protect those rights, he would be arrested more than 50 times.

In the early days of that struggle, he said, “I was not a policy guy. I was a getting-arrested guy.”

But over several decades, he became a policy guy – and an extraordinary leader; a kind of Nelson Mandela of Indian rights. Like Mandela, he understood that real success required reconciliation, cooperation and a shared vision for a healthy future.

When the Boldt decision restored treaty fishing rights to tribes in 1974, he was gracious in victory, and willingly spent much of his life teaching non-Indians the values essential to saving salmon, rivers and the natural world.

He was, most of all, a man proud of his heritage and passionate for humanitarian rights, who managed both with dignity and grace. And in the end, his passing gave pause to people from the president of the United States to his former foes, life-long friends and all those who admired him from afar.

Perhaps it’s best to remember Frank through his own inspiring words:

“One time a guy asked my dad what his Social Security numbers was. That didn’t make any sense to my dad: he said, “Why would I need some number?” Then the guy asked how he made a living. My dad said, ‘I don’t need to make a living. I just fish.’”

“I try to tell people what I saw on our (Nisqually) river 50 and 60 years ago. Now the river’s basically shut down. It’s hit the low end. And now we’re trying to bring it back. But I’ll tell you, it’s hard.”

“As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.”

“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.”

Frank also lived to see major progress in the restoration of the Nisqually watershed and the return of healthy salmon runs to his tribe’s ancestral home.

He was also a leader in the renaissance of Native American culture, the growth of tribal government and the real exercise of tribal sovereignty. But he belonged to all of us; he led all of us; inspired all of us; and will be missed by all of us.

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