Billy Frank Jr., a leader in the fight for tribal treaty rights, salmon and the environment, is dead at 83.
Frank, his father Willy and other members of Northwest tribes fought the state of Washington’s interpretation of treaties that their ancestors had signed with the federal government over the right to fish in the region’s rivers and streams. They fished 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.”
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. That ruling 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.
At that appearance at Eastern Washington University in 2002, Frank told 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.