Nisqually Fisherman, Activist Leaves Behind Legacy

Forty years after the 1974 Boldt decision, which affirmed the rights of natives to fish in their “usual and accustomed grounds,” the death of Billy Frank Jr. is a reminder that the fight isn’t over.

Jailed for the first time in 1945 at the age of 14 for fishing, he fought in the fish wars of the 60s and 70s where he was arrested on many more occasions. As a Nisqually tribe member and the son of Willy Frank and Angeline Tobin Frank, he spent his life fishing. Fighting for tribal fishing rights was simply part of everyday life, since the act of fishing itself was illegal.

In his March interview, weeks before his death, Frank spoke to KUOW radio of fishing and his lifelong fight. As a kid fishing with his father, Willy Frank, he would fish according to the “Treaty of Medicine Creek… but they [State of Washington] had these boundaries all over… We  just grew up with the canoes, and dad would take us fishing… we’d go down to the mouth of the river… you’d walk and pretty soon a flounder was under your foot… [it was] pristine water.”  Much has changed since the time of Frank’s youth – there are no more flounder and the waters are no longer pristine. The salmon struggle every year to survive the pollution in the South Sound.

After the legal success of the Boldt decision, Frank continued to fight. Now that tribal fishing rights were legally protected, the next battle, to rescue the fish population, began. In his KUOW interview he said, “When I was a young kid and drifting on the Nisqually River, I always wondered ‘who is going to take care of us?’ I look over here at the sportsmen and the game department.They take care of them. But I look at us Indians and nobody takes care of us, no infrastructure or anything. Well, today we have an infrastructure with the Northwest Indians Fishing Commission [NWIFC] and all of our tribes.” This organization, which Frank chaired for more than 30 years, is crucial to resource management and protection in cooperation with the state.

Frank openly stated, “We’re a hundred years too late, but then that’s what we were dealt and so we’re going to use that to the fullest and try to bring the salmon back.” He argued that “today it’s a people problem,” and that “pollution is big time… everything it’s coming back into the water.”

The Medicine Creek Treaty was part of the 7th grade curriculum in one Tacoma Public School.A student had this to say about Billy Frank Jr. and fishing: “I think people are going to forget about it and they shouldn’t. The waters are heavily polluted, and the fish population needs to go up. I don’t know how we’re going to do that, but his dream should go on.” She echoes Frank’s sentiments when he said, “It isn’t over.”

At 83,Frank was still fishing the Nisqually, now with his own children, and fighting for a way of life still in jeopardy. His death is a reminder of the battle for tribal rights and protection of natural resources, such as salmon, in the northwest.

Political leaders, such as Senator Maria Cantwell and Senator Patty Murray, attended his Shelton memorial service. Governor Jay Inslee spoke saying, “His leadership really helped everybody in the state because what he did is set up a framework where we could really save our salmon.” Despite the government presence at the service, Frank’s words during his KUOW interview push at the reality: “There is nobody, not even the governor [Inslee], that talks about natural resources… No one mentions salmon, no one mentions fish.” His funeral, in this case, being the exception. For those who would like to make salmon and natural resources a topic our state discusses at more than funerals, the NWIFC is a good place to start.

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