Richard Walker
Billy Frank Jr. speaks at the celebration of the beginning of dam removal on the Elwha River, September 2011.

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

Richard Walker

Everyone had expected to see Billy Frank Jr. sometime that day at the mid-year conference of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

So, ATNI President Fawn Sharp’s tearful announcement the morning of May 5 sent the room in stunned silence:

The civil rights activist and environmental warrior had walked on.

“It was news we didn’t want to believe,” attorney Gabe Galanda said.

The silence was broken by a Shaker prayer song. Then, someone stood and offered a prayer. The question was asked: Should the meeting continue or adjourn?

Continue, a relative of Frank’s said. The man so many knew as Uncle Billy would want the meeting to continue, because the state needs to remove those fish-blocking culverts, and the state has to lower the pollution levels allowed businesses so we can eat more fish, and the federal government has to take the lead on enforcing laws protecting salmon habitat, and brothers and sisters elsewhere in Indian country are fighting for their rights to fish and hunt and harvest.

“We in Indian country, collectively, will have to pick up the mantle,” state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said.

A big mantle it is. In his 83 years, the Nisqually Tribe citizen defended treaty rights in the Northwest and indigenous sovereignty throughout Indian country, guided opposing sides to agreement on how to protect natural resources, helped bring down two dams on the Elwha River, produced an Emmy Award-winning series on Indian country. He chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 34 years, served as a trustee of The Evergreen State College for seven.

Frank, whose honors included the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, was as comfortable in the Oval Office as he was in a tribal chairperson’s office.

“He was a giant in Indian country and we’re going to miss him,” McCoy said.

The funeral service is scheduled for May 11, 10 a.m., in the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort Event Center, according to Hank Adams, his friend and fellow treaty rights activist.

It seems fitting that his service would be held in the same venue as the celebration, only three months earlier, of the 40th anniversary of the decision in U.S. vs. Washington. That decision, by U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt, upheld the Indian fishing rights reserved in treaties signed in 1855. The decision upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution.

RELATED: 40 Years Later: Boldt Decision Celebrations With Some Caution

Boldt’s decision established the Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the state’s salmon fishery and spawned other actions designed to protect salmon, because — as Frank stated in the ensuing years — if there is no salmon fishery, then the treaty is violated.

Among those subsequent actions:

— In 1985, Canada and the United States signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty; through the Pacific Salmon Commission, both countries cooperate in the management, research and enhancement of Pacific salmon stocks.

— In 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that indigenous treaty signers had also reserved the right to harvest shellfish from any beds not “staked or cultivated by citizens,” meaning all public and private tidelands are subject to treaty harvest. “A treaty is not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them,” Rafeedie wrote in his decision.

— In 1999, the state Legislature adopted the Forests & Fish Law, directing the state’s Forest Practices Board to adopt measures to protect Washington's native fish and aquatic species and ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. The law affects 60,000 miles of streams flowing through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.

– In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that the state must remove hundreds of state highway culverts that block fish passage over the next 17 years.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
My sympathies to Mr. Frank's friends and family. I hope he found the trail lined with fat, juicy strawberries as he walked on. It's always sad when a dedicated elder passes. There is such a vacuum left in the absence. I feel a certain pride in knowing that others will proudly pick up where Billy left off.