Richard Walker

The Fire That Was Billy Frank Jr.; Indian Country’s Greatest Defender

Gale Courey Toensing
5/7/14

“I tell my people to get ready. Get your smokehouses back in shape. Don’t forget the ceremonies. That guy, the salmon, he’s coming back.” Billy Frank Jr. (Legacy Project)

He was called a living legend, a visionary leader, a hero, warrior, revolutionary, peacemaker, and a seminal figure in the northwest coastal tribes’ struggle to protect their sovereignty and assert their treaty fishing rights. And as word spread on Monday that Billy Frank Jr. had walked on, expressions of condolence to his family and praise for his life and legacy poured forth.

RELATED: Billy Frank Jr., 1931-2014: ‘A Giant’ Will Be Missed

A citizen of the Nisqually Indian Tribe and a fisherman of the sacred salmon, Frank became world renowned as the leader of the northwest “fish wars” in the 1960s and 1970s when protesters held “fish-ins” aimed specifically at asserting their treaty-protected fishing rights and, more broadly, their resistance to being culturally assimilated into American society.

Frank’s death was announced by the Nisqually Indian Tribe near Olympia, Washington, “The Nisqually people are mourning the sudden passing of Billy Frank Jr. this morning,” the tribe said on its website. “Billy dedicated his life to protecting our traditional way of life and our salmon. For more than 60 years, Billy was the center of action on behalf of the Nisqually people and of Native Americans throughout our country. Along the way, Billy achieved national and international recognition as a towering figure protecting treaty fishing rights, natural resources and the environment. Billy will be sorely missed and long remembered. On behalf of the Nisqually people, the tribal council expresses our sincerest condolences to Billy’s family.”

Nisqually Chairwoman Cynthia Iyall sent this personal note to ICTMN in response to a request for comment: “Billy will always be in the hearts of Nisqually people. Not only was his amazing life's work something people here will remember but also he will be remembered for his presence on the level of being father and uncle. So many here called Billy Uncle -- a sincere appreciation of having him as a close family member. There are so many heavy hearts today and there will be for a long time to come. Possibly we can all have happiness in the fact that Billy was a true Nisqually and we were all blessed to have him in our lives.”

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), which Frank chaired for more than 30 years, also posted a notice of his passing. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of our great leader and good friend, Billy Frank Jr. He was a champion for treaty rights, the salmon and a better quality of life for all of us who live here. Our thoughts are with his family,” Lorraine Loomis, Swinomish tribal fisheries manager and NWIFC vice chair, wrote.

Born in 1931, Frank was arrested for the first time for salmon fishing as a boy in 1945 — the first step on his lifelong effort to protect both tribal rights and the threatened or endangered anadromous salmon that migrate across the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the rushing streams and rivers of the northwest aboriginal territories where they hatched. The salmon is central to the identity of the northwest Salmon People, shaping their culture, diets, societies and religion, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC).

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