Tribal fishing activist Billy Frank Jr. dies

Billy Frank Jr., a pony-tailed tribal fisherman who led the fight to restore fishing rights for American Indians four decades ago and never stopped battling to preserve them, died Monday.

He was 83. The cause of his death was not immediately known.

A seminal political figure of the last half-century, Frank helped transform the relationship between the state and sovereign tribes from one rooted in confrontation to one built with collaboration.

“Billy Frank was a legend among men,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Today, America lost a civil rights leader whose impact will be felt for generations to come.”

His unyielding resolve on behalf of Native Americans — demonstrated through a life of activism inside and outside the offices of government — inspired those in tribes with whom he worked.

“Billy had a saying I just loved,” said Terry Williams, who heads the fisheries and natural resources department for the Tulalip Tribes. “He’d say, ‘You have got to tell the truth and recognize the truth.’ That’s what we have faced all our lives.”

Telling the truth of fishing rights became a hallmark early on for Frank, who was a member of the Nisqually Tribe near Olympia.

Frank was first arrested for salmon fishing as a 14-year-old in 1945. In the 1960s he and others were repeatedly arrested as they staged “fish ins.” These were basically protests at which they insisted treaties signed in the 1850s when their tribe ceded land to white settlers guaranteed them the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds. Frank was jailed more than 50 times.

Their efforts were vindicated in 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes’ right to half of the fish harvest and the nation’s obligation to honor the old treaties.

This year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law creating a process for people arrested in those so-called “fish wars” to get their criminal convictions vacated.

“I’m thankful Billy was here to see the 2014 Legislature pass a bill helping to overturn convictions from treaty protests,” Inslee said in a statement. “Billy was right on this issue and the state owed this gesture of justice to him and others who jeopardized their liberty to fight for treaty rights.”

The Boldt decision didn’t end the fight, as Frank spent the ensuing 40 years pressing state and federal leaders on the need for protecting natural resources to ensure healthy runs of fish, especially salmon.

“Billy dedicated his life to protecting our traditional way of life and our salmon,” reads a statement posted on the Nisqually Tribe’s website, which announced Frank’s passing. “Along the way, Billy achieved national and international recognition as a towering figure protecting treaty rights, natural resources and the environment.”

The Boldt decision led to creation of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission and a platform for Frank when he became its chairman in 1981.

In that role he strived for tribes, governments and private interests to agree on ways to cooperatively manage natural resources around the state.

“Ours is a success story,” he wrote in a piece on the commission website. “Competition for natural resources in the past was fierce and often ended up with confrontations in court, wasting valuable time and limited financial resources. Cooperative management in the last twenty-odd years demonstrated a new way to overcome many of these differences.”

It’s not always achieved easily.

Currently, tribes want Inslee to impose tougher standards aimed at reducing the amount of pollution in fish consumed by humans. On the opposite side are corporations like Boeing, worried about the potential price tag of complying.

Frank and other tribal members met with federal environmental regulators recently to push them to pressure the state to act. More stringent standards would especially protect Native Americans who eat large amounts of salmon and other fish from Washington state waters.

And, of late, Frank had taken to the front lines of the fight against increased rail shipments of oil and coal in the state.

“Our environment, health, safety and communities are at risk from decisions being made now to transport and export trainloads of coal and oil through western Washington,” he wrote in a final post on his fisheries commission blog entitled “Being Frank.”

Frank’s friendly but firm approach impressed Williams in their three decades working together on those issues.

“He was always looking for ways to demonstrate that we have the right to self governance and to manage our own resources,” Williams said.

His speaking style was a blend of humor, humility and quite often a few swear words thrown in for emphasis.

“He would cuss too much,” former Gov. Chris Gregoire recalled with a laugh. “It was part of his vocabulary. It was like adding an exclamation point. It was endearing. It was his way of showing his passion. It helped him get things done.”

His legacy will extend across state lines and into the U.S. Capitol where he went often as a tribal leader and fisheries commission chairman.

Former Congressman Norm Dicks recalled how the power of Frank’s personality and commitment helped change attitudes in the poisonous atmosphere in the early 70s.

“He was able to get people to work together. He was able to alleviate the animosity, and there was a lot to alleviate,” Dicks said.

Dicks’ favorite story about Frank is when he proposed a fish hatchery on a stretch of the Nisqually River located on U.S. Army property. It required passage of a federal law , which meant securing support from, among others, liberal Democratic Congressman Ron Dellums of California.

Frank made his pitch and Dellums clarified that what the tribal leader wanted him to do was basically take land away from the U.S. military and give it to Native Americans.

“Frank said, ‘Yes, sir’ and Dellums then said, ‘Right on brother,’ ” Dicks said.

Billy Frank made friends with President Barack Obama, too.

Obama released a statement Monday, recounting Frank’s achievements. “Today, thanks to his courage and determined effort, our resources are better protected, and more tribes are able to enjoy the rights preserved for them more than a century ago,” Obama said.

In 2012, the president visited the Boeing Co. plant in Everett and called Frank. When Frank told Obama he was standing outside in a long line, the president had him ushered in to join the dignitaries.

“The icon he’s become is second to none,” Gregoire said. “What he was able to do is nothing short of amazing. He will be missed beyond anybody’s comprehension.”

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