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History Will Always Treat Well the Life of Billy Frank Jr.

Richard Walker

Billy Frank Jr.’s funeral was less a time of mourning and more a time of celebration for all he did in defense of treaty rights and Native sovereignty and the environment.

The natural world seemed to be saying just that on May 11. Almost two inches of rain had fallen in the days after Frank’s passing on May 5, but on this day, as his body was laid to rest at Chief Leschi Cemetery on the Nisqually reservation, the sky stopped weeping. The sun was bright and warm, as if to say, “The time to mourn is over. It’s time to get to work.”

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And there’s a lot of work to do. The state is under court order to remove fish-blocking culverts throughout the region. State pollution standards have to be toughened so fish are healthier to eat. The marine ecosystem is being undermined by ocean acidification. Coal and oil transport/export proposals threaten our waters and our communities. The federal government has to take the lead on enforcing laws protecting salmon habitat. Brothers and sisters elsewhere in Indian country are fighting for their rights to fish and hunt and harvest.

No single person will be able to carry the mantle of Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 34 years, a defender of treaty rights and human rights throughout Indian country, a mediator who guided opposing sides to agreement to measures to protect fish and streams and forests, an environmental warrior who helped bring down two dams on the Elwha River, a winner of an Emmy Award for a series on Indian country, a recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism for “exemplary contributions to humanity and the environment.”

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He lived to 83 but “led the equivalent of three lifetimes,” said Robert Whitener, Squaxin, coordinator of Frank’s funeral service.

No, his mantle will be carried by many. The national and state capitols that once had Billy Frank Jr. to contend with can now expect to face multitudes that worked with him or were inspired by him.

RELATED: Billy Frank Jr. Has Gone Home Too Soon


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