Billy Frank Jr. did what most politicians find unimaginable: He cussed in public and was bracingly partial to telling the truth.
Frank, the seminal Indian leader who went from 1960s fish-in scofflaw to salmon-saving prophet, died Monday. He was 83.
The stampede of one-upping praise — from President Barack Obama to Gov. Jay Inslee — crowded email in-boxes. The chorus is well deserved, but belies the great unspoken, that Frank was an iconoclast with only a handful of non-tribal allies when he started out. Where were the amens when Frank was being arrested, again and again, to protest the stomping of tribal fishing rights?
The value of being on the right side of history is that your enemies grow silent.
“Billy was a true statesman who brought an optimistic, can-do approach to environmental and natural resource challenges,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “His activism and perseverance helped build the foundation of an enduring legacy that Washington state will never forget.”
History comes full circle. It was one of Ferguson’s predecessors, Slade Gorton, who fought against the culmination of Frank’s early activism, the 1974 Boldt decision.
The Boldt narrative traces to the first tribal fish-ins in 1964 to protest the violation of indigenous treaty rights, to a 1970 Nixon Justice Department lawsuit against the state of Washington, to the Feb. 12, 1974, ruling that reaffirmed the federal treaties of 1854 and 1855. Tribal members, Judge George Boldt ruled, have the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed” places, with half of the annual catch going to treaty tribes.
Politicians demagogued, giving in to code-word racism. A striking exception was Everett Rep. Lloyd Meeds, who accepted the decision, noting that tribes had the law on their side.
Frank lived to mark the 40th anniversary of the Boldt decision in February as well as witness the passage this year of HB 2080, a bill that vacates the convictions of tribal activists who participated in fish-ins up to 1975.
Frank bent history, even shaping our political vocabulary. As the longtime chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, he conceived the idea a government-to-government framework, something we take for granted.
Frank also was a joy.
“The best rebels are those who are happy,” journalist Mark Trahant writes of his friend. “They know they are right and convince others with their light, rather than just being an obstacle. They smile as they fight. Urging you to join along. They win you over.”