Billy Frank Jr. Street Bellingham
Courtesy K. Neumeyer/NWIFC
A City of Bellingham, Washington worker installs the new Billy Frank Jr. Street sign, which replaces the old Indian Street sign.

Honoring Billy Frank Jr.: A Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Bellingham Street

Frank Hopper
11/17/15

Billy Frank Jr., the Nisqually Native rights activist whose protests and fish-ins during the 1960s and 1970s often landed him in jail, will be posthumously awarded the nation’s highest civilian accolade, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on November 24, the White House announced on Monday.

“Billy Frank Jr. was a tireless advocate for Indian treaty rights and environmental stewardship, whose activism paved the way for the Boldt decision, which reaffirmed tribal co-management of salmon resources in the state of Washington,” the White House said in a release.

Born and raised just outside the Nisqually Reservation on a small homestead known as Frank’s Landing, the former chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was arrested an estimated 50 times by game wardens for fishing with a gillnet on the Nisqually River. Commercial fishing and the post World War II rise of sport fishing increased the pressure put on state wildlife officials to limit fishing by Native tribes. Billy and his family were turned into outlaws for doing what they had done for untold generations.

Nisqually Native rights leader and former chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, who will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24. (Laura Mott/Washington Secretary of State Blogs)

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

But Billy never backed down. His people had been promised the right to fish in their usual and accustomed places by the federal government in the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek. They had traded a vast amount of land in exchange for those treaty rights and shed blood in the process. Billy knew what was right. A deal is a deal. He never wavered from his belief that the federal government’s promise superseded state law.

On February 12, 1974 federal Judge George Boldt handed down the decision that Billy and his tribe were right. The tribes who signed the treaty were entitled to half the state’s harvest of salmon. Billy became a hero, and in 1981 was named the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The former outlaw held that position for 33 years, working ceaselessly to protect the rivers that fed his people from damage caused by industry and urban expansion. He won many awards, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award in 1990 and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1992.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was happy to hear about Billy receiving the Medal of Freedom. “It’s a fitting tribute from the country he tried all his life to make a more perfect union. He lost freedom, property, income, peace of mind and years off his life in the struggle for treaty fishing rights, and was ultimately proven right by the U.S. Supreme Court, by Congress and even by the state of Washington,” she said. “And he did it all with a beautiful smile, the kindest of words and a rare ability to make everyone he met feel better. He was a great man and he is missed, missed.”

On the same day as the White House announcement, the city of Bellingham, 88 miles north of Seattle, officially changed the name of Indian Street to Billy Frank Jr. Street. On a corner near the entrance to Western Washington University, city officials held a ceremony in which the Indian Street sign came down and the Billy Frank Jr. Street sign went up. Bellingham city councilman Terry Bornemann, who suggested the name change in June, was present at the ceremony and spoke to those attending.

Bellingham city councilman Terry Bornemann, who originally proposed the name change in June, poses with fellow council member Roxanne Murphy under the new Billy Frank Jr. Street sign. The installation ceremony was held on November 16. Later that day the White House announced Billy Frank Jr. is one of 17 people who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24. (Courtesy K. Neumeyer/NWIFC)

RELATED: The Road to Visibility: Bellingham to Rename Indian Street to Billy Frank Jr. Street

“He was a great Nisqually leader,” The Bellingham Herald reported Bornemann saying. “He was a man who used both words and actions to fight for treaty and civil rights for his tribe and the greater Coast Salish people.”

Once an outlaw, Billy walked on in 2014 at age 83 and is now regarded as an icon of Native rights, honored by both city governments and the nation’s highest leader.

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

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