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Tribal treaty rights leader Billy Frank dies

Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal elder who was arrested dozens of times during the Fish Wars, is seen earlier this year near Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River. (Associated Press)
Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal elder who was arrested dozens of times during the Fish Wars, is seen earlier this year near Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually River. (Associated Press)

Billy Frank Jr. earlier this year along the Nisqually River. AP photo.

Billy Frank Jr. once told a biographer that when he dies, he wanted to be remembered as a fisherman. 

Leaving it at that for Frank, who died Monday at 83, would be like saying Rosa Parks should be remembered as a mass transit patron.

Being a fisherman was the beginning of the man who grew to be one of the region's premier champions of tribal treaty rights and the environment. Being a fisherman was part of his heritage as a member of the Nisqually tribe, whose ancestral lands once spread out from the South Puget Sound river that carries their name and once teemed with salmon and steelhead.  

"He was part of that river, and he saw the salmon as being part of him," said Tom Keefe, who met Frank, one of his childhood heroes, while an aide to Sen. Warren Magnuson. . . 

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The two became friends and Frank was best man at Keefe's wedding.

The fish dwindled in the river and even after signing a treaty with the federal government much of Nisqually tribal lands were appropriated by the federal government to create Fort Lewis. Being a fisherman made Billy Frank Jr. and father Willy Frank rebels, a practitioners of civil disobedience and thorns in the side of state officials trying to reinterpret decades-old treaties in ways that disadvantaged the tribes that signed them. The Franks and other members of Northwest tribes said those treaties gave them the right to fish in the region's rivers and streams where their ancestors had fished,  even when and where state officials said they couldn't.

Billy Frank was 14 the first time he was arrested. "I just kept on getting arrested," he said some 12 years ago in Cheney. "The judge would tell us not to fish, and we went fishing."

The movement grew in the '50s, '60s and '70s, and members of Northwest tribes would stage "fish-ins". They'd be arrested, convicted and jailed. Tempers flared. Some arrests turned violent.

Eventually, Frank and others wound up in federal court. In a decision that shocked state officials, U.S. District Judge George Boldt said treaties gave the tribes the right to half the annual salmon harvest. State officials could tell non-natives when and where to fish because for them it was a privilege, Boldt said; but the state couldn't put such restrictions on tribal members because under the treaties, fishing was a right that the state has no authority to limit.

Boldt's ruling didn't solve the problems with the state's fishing runs, but it did put tribes at the table on negotiations with the government officials, utility executives, sportsmen and environmentalists on how to keep the salmon healthy and the region's rivers clean. Billy Frank eventually became chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a voice for taking a global view of a complex problem that stretched from the trawlers in the Pacific Ocean to the spawning grounds in the creeks that feed the tributaries of the Columbia River and the Puget Sound.

He met with governors, senators and presidents; President Clinton called him Billy. He received a long list of awards for public service and environmental work, including The Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. 

On Monday, the state's top politicians of both parties mourned his passing. He was a fine gentleman and a respected leader, state Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said He was a guiding light, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said. He stressed the spiritual and cultural relationship that indigenous people have with salmon, Gov. Jay Inslee said. 

He was always looking to the future. At that appearance at Eastern Washington University in 2002, Frank told a gathering of Native American students that nothing would happen if they sat around.

"You don't just go out the door and smell the roses," he said. "You plant cedar trees. We'll never see them tall, but our children will."

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a  law allowing for Native Americans who were convicted of fishing violations before the Boldt decision to have their convictions vacated. It was the closest legislators could come, several said, to an apology for what happened decades earlier.

During Senate debate on the bill -- which technically wasn't really a debate because the bill passed the chamber unanimously -- Frank McCoy, D-Tulalip, recalled meeting a man in 1994 when he returned to the Northwest after years away in the military and government service: "He walked up to me and asked do I need a bail bondsman?"

He asked a friend "Who was that?" Billy Frank, said his incredulous friend, adding "Everybody knows Billy Frank." McCoy, who only knew of Billy Frank, said he was honored to finally meet him in person. On Monday, McCoy who is the state Senate's only Native American member, said Frank will be remembered as a tireless advocate for tribal rights and the environment.

"He will be missed, but his legacy will live on," McCoy said in a prepared statement.

Frank was not among the more than two dozen members of Northwest tribes who gathered last month to watch Inslee sign the bill that allows those with "salmon war" convictions to file with a court to have their records wiped clean. If anyone sees Frank, Inslee said, "tell him I will pay his filing fee."

The new law takes effect next month, but Keefe said he doubted that Frank would have taken Inslee up the offer because Frank considered his arrests and convictions something of "a badge of honor". He might've told Inslee it was a nice gesture but a nicer one would be to find more ways to help the salmon by making the rivers and the Puget Sound cleaner.  

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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