Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank Jr. was arrested for the first time at age 14. In the following 30 years, he would be arrested at least 50 more times.
But it was his peaceful protests and resilience while advocating for Native American treaty rights and fishery protections that brought his legacy to the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
President Barack Obama honored 17 Americans, including Frank, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The ceremony honored activists, composers, public servants, athletes, performers and scientists who have made significant contributions to national and security interests, world peace or cultural endeavors.
“This is an extraordinary group,” Obama said. “We are just reminded what an incredible tapestry this country is, what a great blessing to be in a nation where individuals immersed in wildly different backgrounds can help shape our dreams, how we live together, help define justice, freedom and love. They represent what’s best in us.”
Among those honored at the White House were professional baseball players Yogi Berra and Willie Mays, first African-American congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan, veterans health advocate Bonnie Carroll and renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Also honored were lyricist Stephen Sondheim, film director Steven Spielberg, performer Barbra Streisand, recording artist James Taylor, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, policy expert Lee Hamilton, NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson and civil rights lawyer Minoru Yasui.
In presenting Frank’s medal, Obama recalled how the Nisqually activist used to say, “I wasn’t a policy guy, I was a getting-arrested guy.”
Frank died in May 2014. His daughter-in-law accepted on his behalf.
“We are so grateful that President Obama is recognizing him,” his son Willie Frank III said. “It’s such a great honor for the family to see this award in my dad’s name.”
Frank worked tirelessly to protect salmon habitat and fishing rights for Native American communities in the Pacific Northwest, even when faced with violence and jail time.
“He saved the salmon that had fed his family for generations,” Obama said. “He was spat on, shot at, chased, clubbed and cast as an outlaw, but Billy kept fighting because he knew he was right.”
Frank’s activism, which included “fish-ins” to protest state laws restricting Indian fishing access and creating the political group Survival of the American Indian Association, was instrumental in the Boldt decision, a landmark court case that restored Native American rights to fishing grounds as specified in treaties more than 100 years old.
“He didn’t do it just for the tribe, he did it for everybody,” Frank III said. “Salmon is very important for our way of life, traditions and our culture, if it wasn’t for the warriors back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, I don’t know where the tribes in Washington would be today.”
In 1974, Frank founded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission to unite the 20 treaty Indian tribes that the decision by federal Judge George Boldt established as natural resource co-managers with Washington state. He served as the chairman for 30 years until his death in May 2014. He was 83.
Frank always considered the salmon essential to his family and tribe’s livelihood, culture and tradition, his son said, which fueled his fight for state and federal recognition of the treaties from the 1850s that protected tribal fishing practices in “usual and accustomed” places, whether on reservation or off.
“Billy went on to become a national voice for Indian country, a warrior for the natural war,” Obama said.
In his later years, Frank often worked with previous EPA Administrator William “Bill” Ruckelshaus, who also received the Presidential Freedom Award. Ruckelshaus founded and serves as the chairman of the Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort by Washington’s two research universities to assist public, private, tribal, non-profit and other community leaders in public policy issues in the Pacific Northwest. They both have worked extensively to restore and protect the Puget Sound along Washington’s coast.
“Under Bill’s leadership the EPA set a powerful precedent, protecting our environment is something we must come together to do as a country,” Obama said of Ruckelshaus.
Frank’s legacy was also celebrated in his home state Tuesday, where Bellingham officially changed a street name to Billy Frank Jr. Street. Frank also has received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement, and in May Congress introduced a bill that would rename the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State as the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
“His message about protecting our treaty rights, sovereignty, natural resources that never changed,” Frank III said. “He saw the main picture, the big goal. There’s never going to be anyone like my dad.”