Billy Frank Jr., an iconic tribal leader and tireless advocate for treaty rights, healthy salmon runs and clean water, has died at age 83.
The Nisqually tribal member was longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a key figure in the Indian fish-ins of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the court ruling known as the Boldt decision.
The ruling affirmed 20 coastal and Western Washington treaty tribes’ rights to 50 percent of the harvestable salmon, and named those tribes co-managers of the resource.
The Boldt decision also elevated Frank into a prominent role as a tribal elder statesmen and a persistent voice on behalf of salmon recovery and habitat protection.
Known for his long gray ponytail, salty language, warm smile and bear hugs, Frank could work a room like a seasoned politician, always on behalf of tribal fishing rights and a traditional way of life.
Late in life, his face was as weathered as the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, the birthplace of the river from which his life unfolded.
He rubbed elbows with presidents dating back to Jimmy Carter. He served on countless boards and commissions forged to clean up Puget Sound and repair imperiled salmon runs. He was viewed as a global ambassador for indigenous people, earning humanitarian honors such as the Albert Schweitzer Prize (1992) and the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award (1990).
He always found time to instill cultural pride in young Indian children from the river watersheds of Western Washington, including his beloved Nisqually River.
“You’re the next generation to take on the fight for your culture and your way of life,” he said to 50 Indian youths at a February celebration of the Boldt decision in Mason County. “You’re an Indian and you’ve gotta be proud — proud of who you are.”
As word of Frank’s sudden death spread — he was found dead Monday morning at his Olympia-area home — friends and associates struggled with their grief and offered eulogies.
“He was the most gracious and forgiving person I’ve ever known,” said Nisqually tribal natural resource director David Troutt. “He was my mentor for 30 years, and it was from him that I learned to be respectful of all people. Those warm embraces of his were genuine, and they could make all the difference in the world.”
“Billy Frank Jr. was one of the greatest men I have ever known,” state Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson said. “He was a no-nonsense and straightforward communicator while at the same time warm and caring of other human beings. I looked forward to the embrace I got every time we met and was honored to have known him for so many years.”
Said Gov. Jay Inslee in a prepared statement: “Washington lost a true legend with the passing of Billy Frank Jr. today. Billy never wavered in his conviction and passion. He stressed to me the spiritual and cultural relationship that indigenous people have with salmon.”
The White House issued a statement Monday evening, saying in part: “Billy never stopped fighting to make sure future generations would be able to enjoy the outdoors as he did, and his passion on the issue of climate change should serve as an inspiration to us all.”
Longtime friend and confidant Hank Adams said Frank had slowed somewhat in recent years, and suffered a minor stroke about 14 months ago while testifying before Congress.
But he was still working every day and had trips planned to Washington, D.C., and Alaska, Adams said.
On Monday morning, Frank was getting ready for a business trip to Lynnwood. After dressing, he sat back down on his bed and told his son Willie Frank III that he was feeling tired, Adams said. When his son checked on him, he had stopped breathing.
A REMARKABLE LIFE
Frank was raised on the banks of the Nisqually River on 6 acres of trust property known as Frank’s Landing, the son of Willie Frank, who lived to be 104, and Angeline Frank, who lived into her 90s.
In December 1945, he was arrested the first time by state game wardens for illegally fishing for chum salmon. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade and worked construction day jobs and fished at night with the occasional rough treatment by fish cops and confiscation of his fishing gear.
He enlisted in the Marines at age 21, but returned to his river and his roots in 1954. As the fishing wars heated up in the 1960s and 1970s, Frank and a small group of tribal activists from the Nisqually, Puyallup and Muckleshoot tribes were at the forefront of fishing battles on the Nisqually, Puyallup and Green rivers.
Mainstream tribal members viewed them as renegades. Civil rights groups saw them as kindred spirits.
Their nets and boats were confiscated. They were clubbed, tear-gassed and dragged muddy and wet to county jails.
Finally, the federal government defended them, bringing the treaty rights fishing case in front of Judge George Hugo Boldt, a no-nonsense, law-and-order jurist. Much to the surprise of many, he ruled in the tribes’ favor.
The Boldt decision was a transformative moment in Frank’s life. He’d earned a reputation as a hard-drinking man, but at the urging of friends and family, he gave up alcohol and embraced a new role as one of the key tribal leaders charged with enacting the decision and bringing a new era of fisheries management to the region.
Along with his run-ins with the fish police, life dealt Frank other tough blows. His second wife, Sue Crystal, died of kidney cancer in 2001 at age 48. Frank also lost his daughter Maureen and granddaughter Cabaqhud in a head-on car collision with a drunken driver.
Still, Frank maintained his dignity and an inner calm, always working for the salmon, working for his people.
MANY HAVE MEMORIES
“He could do wonders for the resource, and we were all better off because of it,” noted Bob Turner, a federal fisheries manager and former state Department of Fish and Wildlife director who spent countless hours with Frank, negotiating fish management plans and harvest allocations.
“No one person will be able to fill his shoes,” Turner continued. “Together we’re all going to have to bear the responsibility, and do a little more.”
“Billy Frank Jr. was a civil rights leader of historic significance,” said Congressman Denny Heck, D-Wash. “For generations, folks will continue to write about him and talk about the good he did, not just for tribes, but for all of the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest.”
At Frank’s Landing on Monday, people shared rich memories.
“This would be his empire,” said 34-year-old C.J. Young, looking over the Nisqually River as it ran past the Wa He Lut Indian School at 11110 Conine Ave. SE, where Frank routinely visited students.
He often took long walks along those banks, Young said, and would set up nets to catch salmon by the school.
Young heard Frank before he met him for the first time. He played in a recreational basketball league with Frank’s son, and when someone from the crowd shouted “Yeehoo!,” Willie Frank told Young it was his dad.
Frank would sit and talk with Young by the river outside the school, where Young is a chef.
“Jesus my boy! Good to see you!” he remembered Frank saying when he’d run into Young, who stands at 7 feet 2.
Both Young and 36-year-old Marquis Moses called Frank “Uncle Billy.”
People would chat with Frank as he flipped through his mail from the box by the store, Moses said. Both he and Young work at the store and knew Frank through their friendships with his son Willie.
His activism was before their time, they said, but they got to hear about it from Frank himself.
They said everyone in the area knew how much it meant to him that the Legislature passed a bill this year to let tribal members apply to expunge convictions related to the fish wars.
“It was almost like he hung around to see those charges dropped,” Moses said. “I think that was probably one of the biggest moments in his life, to finally have that washed away.”
Tribal leaders from around the region visited his home Monday to say their goodbyes and offer traditional tribal blessings, Adams said.
A public memorial service for Frank has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday at the Squaxin Island Event Center next to the Little Creek Casino, W. 91 State Route firstname.lastname@example.org