Nisqually’s Willie Frank celebrates sobriety and his dad’s legacy

Nisqually tribal member Willie Frank Jr. III stands below the elevated canoe used by his father, Billy Frank Jr. The canoe is on display at the Wa He Lut Indian School in Nisqually.
Nisqually tribal member Willie Frank Jr. III stands below the elevated canoe used by his father, Billy Frank Jr. The canoe is on display at the Wa He Lut Indian School in Nisqually. sbloom@theolympian.com

In August 2001, Willie Frank watched his mother, Sue Crystal, fight but eventually succumb to kidney cancer in their family home. He was 19.

Nearly a dozen years later Frank and his wife, Peggen, would find themselves caring for his dad, the legendary Native American activist Billy Frank Jr., as he struggled to recover from a stroke in the couple’s Lacey home.

“That just brought a lot of memories back, as far as mom,” recalls Frank, 33. “This is Superman to me. This guy is bulletproof, and he’s always going 100 miles an hour, and to see him not with it?”

The former Nisqually tribal vice-chairman began trying to wash away the grief and stress with Percocet, a prescription painkiller that contains oxycodone, and has similar effects of heroin and morphine.

“I was more or less numbing the pain than dealing with it,” Frank said.

Before he knew it, he was swept up in the treacherous current of drug addiction. He’d eventually be charged with stealing $50,000 from his tribe, and attempting to rob two Olympia banks.

“That wasn’t me,” Frank said. “I wasn’t raised to steal, to lie, to do what I was doing. … I didn’t know who that monster was.”

Lummi Nation will honor Billy Frank Jr. Day, with Lummi Indian Business Council offices closed Wednesday. In November, Bellingham renamed Indian Street to Billy Frank Jr. Street to honor him.


Last Wednesday, Frank celebrated 20 months of sobriety.

He said he views July 2, 2014, the day he landed behind bars in Thurston County Jail, as one of the most important days in his life — second only to his wedding day.

“On July 2nd, I was given a second chance in life,” he said.

His third favorite day is Wednesday, March 9, which the Nisqually Tribal Council has proclaimed as Billy Frank Jr. Day, in honor of his late father’s birthday. The tribe’s offices will be closed in observance of the holiday.

Lummi Nation also will honor Billy Frank Jr. Day, with Lummi Indian Business Council offices closed Wednesday. In November, Bellingham renamed Indian Street to Billy Frank Jr. Street to honor him.

Billy Frank Jr. founded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and served as its chairman for 30 years, until his death in May 2014.

Hundreds of people, including many tribal leaders and politicians from around the region, are expected to attend Wednesday’s invitation-only event at the tribe’s Community Center.

“It’s not like it’s a memorial or anything,” Frank said. “We’re going to celebrate his life. People can get up and tell stories.”

Billy Frank Jr. was a central figure in the Indian fish-ins during the 1960s and ‘70s that led to the court ruling known as the Boldt decision. The case affirmed the treaty rights of 20 coastal and Western Washington tribes, granting them half of harvestable salmon.

The holiday is one of several ways the Nisqually people are honoring their beloved elder. The tribal council recently named the newly renovated Community Services Center after him, and there are plans to name a frontage road Billy Frank Jr. Boulevard.

In addition, Congress recently voted to rename the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in his honor, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

“He wouldn’t have wanted that; he would have been humbled,” Frank said about the award that was presented by President Barack Obama. “I could see him with his pony tail and suit, accepting that award in the White House, you know, wondering. … He would have given the president the biggest hug in the world.”


William Thomas C. Frank III was born to one of Indian Country’s power couples.

His mom, Sue Crystal, served as a top aide to former Washington state governors Gary Locke and Mike Lowry. During her last year of life, Crystal was director of the Washington State Health Care Authority.

Before that, while working for U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson on Indian budget and policy issues, she played a pivotal role in acquiring land for the Wa He Lut Indian School on the Nisqually River.

“(She) had a huge impact clear across the country because of her work on health care and Indian issues,” Billy Frank Jr. said in a 2001 Olympian story. “She was the behind-the-scenes person who made everything work.”

The couple was married for more than 20 years. They took their son everywhere they went, according to Native American rights activist Hank Adams, 72, of Olympia.

“It was sort of like John Kennedy Jr. learning how to walk in the Oval Office. His mom had him with her at work, and Billy had him in his fishwagon, traveling around the tribes,” Adams said. “Billy called any vehicle he had his fishwagon. … Even Mike Lowry, he has pictures of Billy and Willie and Sue in his living room, of the earliest years of Willie.”

When Crystal died, Billy Frank Jr. encouraged Willie and his brothers, Tobin “Sugar” and Tanu Frank, to stay strong, Adams said. Frank took his dad’s request to heart.

“He tried to act like he was unaffected and that he was soldiering through after his mom’s death without ever coming to terms with his deeply held grief,” Adams said.

But it would eventually rise to the surface.


Shortly after his birthday in 2013, Billy Frank Jr. went to the eye doctor. His vision had drastically changed.

The doctor asked if it was possible that the treaty rights activist could have suffered a stroke recently. Come to think of it, yes, he had felt numb on one side the other day, he admitted to the doctor.

Around Easter, Billy Frank Jr. was feeling better. He had surgery to repair a carotid artery.

“He came back to us,” Frank said. “I’d say in September that year, he was working again. He was flying again.”

Frank thought he’d have more time — decades longer — with his dad. His grandpa, Willie Frank Sr., had lived past age 100, and everyone believed his dad would live just as long.

On the morning of May 5, 2014, Frank woke his dad up for a shower. When he came back an hour later, he found his dad, lifeless, laying on his bed.

“He looked so peaceful,” Frank said. “He went out on his own terms. He didn’t suffer. He didn’t go through anything.”

More than 6,000 people turned out for the activist’s memorial service at Little Creek Casino Resort’s Event Center near Shelton.

During the service, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell described Billy Frank Jr. as “a legend that has walked among us,” and she compared his legacy to those of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Frank said he doesn’t remember the service, or any of the weeks following his dad’s death.

“That, until I was arrested on July 2, was just a blur,” he said. “It was just literally a blur.”


In May 2014, the Washington State Patrol began investigating Frank after Nisqually Tribal Police identified him as a suspect in a series of thefts from tribal bank accounts, according to court records.

He was arrested on July 2, 2014, after an Umpqua Bank employee reported she was concerned a man was “casing” the bank. It was later determined he had entered two other branches, with multiple Band-Aids on his face and wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants, despite weather being in the high 80s that day.

In an interview with investigators, Frank admitted that he thought about robbing the banks — but he didn’t go through with it because his conscience took over.

“I feel so bad for scaring those people at the bank,” Frank said.

Peggen Frank said she was shocked, but relieved he was OK when she heard her husband had been arrested. She hadn’t heard from him for several hours.

“I felt like the world was ending,” she recalls. “ ‘He lost his mind’ is pretty much what I could think of.”

While in jail, Frank began the grueling detoxification process.

“I would never wish that on my worst enemy,” he said. “It took about four days. I spent hours and hours just lying on the bathroom floor, hurting. Your body hurts. You ache. You don’t want to talk to anybody.”

He was granted permission by a judge to attend the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s 30-day in-patient treatment program in Newberg, Oregon. He said he learned about how drugs affected the brain and body.

“I still work every day on my sobriety because this isn’t something that you’re ever going to be cured of,” he said. “This is something I’m going to have to work on for the rest of my life.”

He said he thinks his parents would have been the first to “get on him” about his reckless choices. But they also would have been proud that he found his way to sobriety.

“The way I look at it is, I could have went two ways with this whole thing,” Frank said. “I could have pulled myself out of this and did what I’m supposed to do in life, or I could have just went back to being the same (expletive) I was being.”

Frank said he found inspiration in his dad’s story of sobriety. Billy Frank Jr. went to Schick Shadel Hospital in 1973.

“And he never drank again after that,” Frank said. “Never a drop. He wouldn’t even eat rum cake or anything like that.”


In September, Frank pleaded guilty to five felony charges, stemming from the embezzlement and attempted robbery cases. Prior to his sentencing, numerous people submitted letters to the court.

“Our generations to come, children and grandchildren will think it’s OK to steal and attempt to rob a bank,” wrote Jean Sanders of DuPont. “Willie Frank has discredited our Tribal Council and our Tribe as a whole. ... Please hold (him) responsible and punish through jail or prison for his crimes. I hope through all of this, William Frank III will become a better person.”

Josephine Wells wrote: “I know people feel sorry for him because they say he was grieving over the loss of his father. Well, he was stealing from the tribe way before his dad passed. When a person does something wrong, they should be made to pay the consequences, no matter who their dad was! Willie Frank sure is not a good role model for our youth.”

But Frank also received letters in support.

“As a former Chairman for the Nisqually Tribe, I have seen many of our Tribal Members struggle with daily life and the issues that come about from that,” wrote John Simmons. “Willie has made mistakes; much like every human does, but it is my belief that he has learned from those errors and corrected them in a positive way. Willie has been clean and sober for many months now and I believe he is on a path to full recovery.”

“Unfortunately, I also had a front-row seat to Willie’s addiction sending him out of control,” wrote tribal council member Antonette Squally. “I believe that everything happens for a reason and while I don’t condone where his addiction took him, had Willie not derailed the way he did so quickly, he probably would not have received the help he needed. …Willie has been clean and sober, he has paid back all of the money owed to the Nisqually Tribe and he is attempting to make amends in the community.”

Prosecutors had recommended 14 months prison for Frank, who was initially charged in August with 15 counts of theft and two counts attempted robbery. In November, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch approved a Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative, known as a DOSA. Instead of prison, Frank was ordered to enter a state drug treatment facility for three months. He also was sentenced to 15 months of probation. He’s drug tested twice a week (“it keeps me honest, definitely,” he said) and gets regular injections of Vivitrol.

“It helps repair the damage caused with your addiction,” Frank said of the opiate blocker.

Frank said he feels his experience can be used to teach youth that “if you fall down, you can get back up and you can still make a difference in this society and life.”

Instead of popping pills, he said he now finds solace in performing community service. He likes to spend time along the Nisqually River.

“It’s good medicine to be on the river,” he said. “I almost feel like I get a little bit of my grandpa and my dad both being on the river, with my brother especially.”

Frank was recently nominated to run for tribal council again in May. He’s now assistant manager for the Nisqually Tribe’s Natural Resources Department, working under Georgiana Kautz, his dad’s first wife’s sister.

“She’s been like an auntie-slash-mom to me my whole life,” Frank said. “I’m trying to take in everything from her.”

As part of his new job, Frank said he plans to work with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and help continue his dad’s work.

“His life and his legacy are just going to keep carrying on through all of us who he has affected in our day-to-day lives,” Frank said.

He also wants to work toward getting Billy Frank Jr. Day recognized across the state, if not the country.

“Every kid should know what he did, what he stood for and what he believed in,” Frank said. “He didn’t do it just for the tribes. He did it for everybody.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton