Ted S. Warren/AP Images
On November 24, the United States of America awarded Billy Frank, Jr., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Indigenous Hell-Raiser as National Hero: Billy Frank, Jr. Wins Presidential Medal Of Freedom

Gyasi Ross

“I wasn’t a policy guy.  I was a getting-arrested guy.”   - Billy Frank, Jr. 

A couple of weeks ago, on November 24, the United States of America awarded a bushy haired Native man, Billy Frank, Jr., the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That’s a big deal—that’s an honor that very few people of any color achieve. The amount of Natives who have won this honor?

Almost non-existent. 

So that’s rare enough.  But if a person were to check Billy Frank’s arrest record, you’d probably think that his chance of winning any award from the government was probably the same as Billy the Kid, Al Capone or Wild Bill Hickok.  In fact, maybe Billy Frank, Jr. had less of a chance than those guys—they didn’t get arrested nearly as many times as he did.

He was arrested over 50 times.  He must have been a bad dude, right?

The truth is that Uncle Billy Frank was arrested over 50 times for you.  And for me.  He was arrested for Native kids that he would never meet and many who would never know his name. Billy was arrested for telling white people that, no, Native people were not all dead and, yes, those white people will have to honor the agreements that they signed with Native people. If anybody thinks that Native people are marginalized today, 50 years ago white folks treated Natives (and all people of color really) infinitely worse and so people like Billy Frank literally had to stand up and stop white people from taking our food sources from right in from us. 

We were starving. And languishing.  And nobody knew about it because we were invisible.

Tacoma News Tribune

So Billy Frank made white folks see him. He was conspicuous and got arrested again and again and again and again with no end in sight—there was no guarantee that he would ever see the day when he would have the right to feed his family as his father did and his father before that.  In hindsight we can say that it was a brave thing and speculate that we would have done the same but the truth is that we wouldn’t have because no one else did…nobody wanted to go to jail 50 times and there was no one way to know that it would stop at 50.

But Uncle Billy was a warrior. He kept on in spite of common sense saying he should stop. He never quit, because he wanted his boys and his nieces and nephews to be able to feed their family and didn’t want them to be invisible.  So he kept on.  In spite of getting beat on and shot at and getting criticized from his own people, his own Native people that didn’t see the bigger picture and didn’t want to upset the status quo. His treatment from Native people was very similar to Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought for the equal treatment of black people despite taking heavy criticism from other black folks who just didn’t get it.

Now they call both of them—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Frank, Jr.—heroes. 

But the truth is that Billy Frank, Jr. was already a national hero, well before President Obama recognized his bravery, his power and his courage.  He didn’t need the Presidential Medial of Freedom to confirm that he was one of the bravest warriors that ever walked this continent. 

He was already that. 

There’s a saying that a person doesn’t die until people stop saying their name; Uncle Billy will never die if that’s true. He was one of the first people in the modern age to begin giving Native people our self-esteem back, to fight back to the forces of anti-Indigenousness and manifest destiny.  On that fateful Tuesday night a few weeks ago, it was only appropriate that his beloved daughter-in-law Peggen Frank and beloved niece Nancy Shippentower-Games were the ones to accept the award on behalf of the Frank family.  They looked beautiful and represented the powerful feminine strength that was very present during the Fishing Wars.  They showed the strength of Native femininity that has kept our communities alive during the past century and a half when Native people were invisible and there were constant assaults on our physical bodies as well as self-esteem. 

Uncle Billy didn’t get arrested so that he would someday become national hero—it was enough that he was able to feed his family. He did it for Native people, not for the country.  And it is Native people who benefit every single day from his willingness to sacrifice his time, his freedom, and indeed his life for us. 

He was already a hero; it’s just that the rest of the country finally found out about it.  

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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