Hundreds of people gathered Friday afternoon with the Nisqually Tribe for a ribbon-cutting celebration of the new Billy Frank Jr. Community Services Center.
The late tribal-rights activist has received numerous awards — including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor — since his death in May 2014. But this was the first opportunity the Nisqually had to honor Frank, who was one of their beloved elders.
“We knew him as our uncle, as we all called him, as our friend, as a Nisqually tribal member,” said chairman Farron McCloud. “That’s what we knew him by.”
When work on the 25,600-square-foot renovation of Nisqually’s former gym and tribal offices was completed recently, the Billy Frank Jr. Community Services Center was the only name that the tribal council could come up with, McCloud said.
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“It was a must,” he said at the ceremony. “He was a legend. He was a hero. He was a warrior for this Nisqually Indian Tribe.”
Frank founded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and served as its chairman for 30 years, until his death. Congress recently voted to rename the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge in his honor.
In addition to the center, the Nisqually Tribe plans to name a frontage road Billy Frank Jr. Boulevard. It has also declared March 9 as Billy Frank Jr. Day.
“It’s going to be a holiday for a lot of the tribes,” McCloud said.
The center will house the tribe’s social services programs and its natural resources department. Its architect was Womer & Associates, a Native American design firm based in Spokane, and its contractor was the Olympia-based Berschauer Group. In addition, several Nisqually tribal members worked on the construction project, McCloud said.
During the past 40 years, the building, which features offices, a kitchen and a full-size gym, has been the site for many powwows, weddings and community events.
Tribal member Grace Ann Byrd, 45, said Frank loved to watch basketball games in the gym.
“It’s appropriate for this building to be named after him,” she said.
“It’s really neat,” said her mother, Nisqually tribal elder Caroline Byrd, 80. “I thank them (the council) for naming it after him.”
Tribal vice-chairman Willie Frank III said the family was honored, but that his father would have balked at the attention.
“I don’t think he would have wanted it,” he said. “He never wanted the recognition.”
McCloud agreed. “He’d just say, ‘Let’s just keep fighting and fighting and fighting,’ ” he said.