Voice for salmon heard again

jdodge@theolympian.comJune 7, 2012 

Billy Frank Jr. speaks for the salmon. He always has and he always will.

The message delivered by one of the most famous Indians in Washington history rings loud and clear through a new biography released this week entitled “Where the Salmon Run, The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank Jr.”

The book authored by Trova Heffernan is the 13th in a series of oral histories and biographies by the Legacy Project housed in the Office of the Secretary of State.

In this case, 13 is certainly not an unlucky number.

Heffernan has done a masterful job portraying a Nisqually Indian who from a modest beginning on the banks of the Nisqually River – he first invoked his treaty right to catch salmon in 1945 at the age of 14 – made his mark in the tumultuous fish wars of the 1960s, endured personal tragedies and obstacles that would have unraveled most of us, only to emerge a champion of fishing rights of treaty tribes in Western Washington and beyond.

Schooled in the natural wonders of the Nisqually River watershed by his father, Willie Frank, who was born before the birth of the state and lived to be 104, Frank has transformed himself from an angry young man fueled by racial injustice, alcohol and multiple arrests by state game wardens into a sober elder statesman who has rubbed elbows with every president since Jimmy Carter.

Officially, he is the enduring face and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the tribal consortium of fisheries managers that grew out of the landmark 1974 federal court decision – who hasn’t heard of the Boldt Decision? – which split the harvestable catch of salmon between non-Indians and treaty tribes.

But his sphere of influence is global, an Indian leader from Indian country always quick to proclaim: “We’re still here. This is where we live.”

Frank’s life journey, chronicled in the book, winds and flows like the river next to which he was born. He is loved by his family and friends, begrudgingly respected by his foes and forever familiar to all with his long gray ponytail, warm embraces, blunt, salty language and face as weathered as a Mount Rainier glacier from which his life story springs forth.

At 81, I hazard to guess Frank is slowing down just a little bit. The last time I heard him talk a few months ago – you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him – the tone was less animated and more subdued than in decades past.

But the fire still burns inside him, a passionate flame that sheds political heat and public light on habitat losses and pollutants – he calls them poisons – that continue to erode salmon runs.

Heffernan talked to all the right people to write this book, from fellow Indian rights warrior Hank Adams to Frank’s son, Willie Frank III, who today sits on the Nisqually Tribal Council and bears a striking resemblance to his father in his younger years.

Over the span of 18 months, Heffernan caught up with Frank six times for face-to-face interviews filled with candor, insight and patchwork quotes only Frank could knit together. Grabbing six interviews with a man who’s constantly in motion is no small feat. The author came away impressed, particularly with the way Frank has bounced back from repeated jailings, the death of a wife to cancer, the death of a daughter and granddaughter in a head-on car crash with a drunken driver and many other tragedies.

“This man has been through so much in the past 60-plus years, yet he doesn’t hold a grudge,” Heffernan said. “He’s not a bitter man.”

Tom Keefe, a legislative director for former U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson and longtime friend of Frank’s may have summed it up best:

“I can say this is a guy who decided he could change the world by changing himself.”

A launch of the new book is set for 1:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday at The Evergreen State College Longhouse. The free public event will feature Frank as the keynote speaker.

I’ll bet my mortgage that whatever he has to say about saving the salmon and protecting the environment will be impromptu and straight from the heart.

jdodge@theolympian.com 360-754-5444

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