The U.S. Senate passed the Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act on Monday. What a story he will tell.
At age 14, the Nisqually youth was arrested for catching fish. It was the first of more than 50 arrests that would cycle him before a judge who would order him not to fish, and release him – back into the river to fish.
Gradually, more members of Puget Sound-area tribes began fishing beside him on the Nisqually, or in other rivers where their ancestors had once thrived on runs of chum and steelhead, chinook and sockeye.
They were arrested, too, ever more violently, as commercial and recreational fishermen fought over the last of once-abundant fish. Until 1974, when U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt ruled that an 1854 treaty meant what it said: Northwest tribes were entitled to one-half the fish harvested in the region.
The vehemence of the response is hard to conceive today. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs reported 28 shootings at tribal fishermen. Police and U.S. Coast Guard boats were rammed.
Yet it was the Boldt ruling and passage of the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980 that helped reverse the decimation of the region’s salmon and steelhead runs.
Habitat was restored, hatcheries were built – many managed by the tribes – and fish numbers rebounded to the record levels of recent years.
The fight may have started in the rivers west of the Cascade Mountains, but every Northwest fisherman has been the winner.
Frank continued to be the pre-eminent advocate not only for Native American fishing rights, but for the region’s environment as well. He said he wanted to be remembered as a fisherman, but when he died in May at age 83, Frank had come a long way from the 14-year-old arrested for catching salmon.
His activism on behalf of human rights and a clean environment had made him a national and world figure, and a model for civil disobedience on behalf of a just cause.
The last of the many honors he earned was a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously by President Obama last month.
The new legislation was co-sponsored by every member of Washington’s congressional delegation. Once signed by the president, the name Billy Frank Jr. will be added to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. More importantly, the law authorizes the U.S. Department of the Interior to work with Puget Sound-area tribes to provide educational materials for the Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial, which commemorates the pact that was the basis for the Boldt decision 120 years later.
Frank will tell his story to generations that may be unaware of the bravery of a Nisqually teenager who just wanted to fish as his ancestors had. They would be proud.
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