“God Damn Son of a Bitch!” was my favorite Billy Frank Jr. quote. It was usually prefaced by a professorial lecture on issues like water quality, marine biology, salmon genes, habitat, forestry, treaty rights and so forth. Breaking from a Harvard style vernacular on science Billy would get fired up and lay into some politician or agency, when it came to protecting salmon he would spare nobody.
The fishing and treaty rights warrior has gone home, even at the age of 83 it seems unfair and too soon. Anyone who knew Billy was looking forward to his 90th birthday celebration, and figuring he would break the century mark. Billy didn’t just live a full and rich life he led probably three or four full lives by Indian standards.
Much will be written in the coming days of the Northwest fishing wars, the revival of treaty rights and his leadership in both. I want to share another side of his life. I always viewed Billy as a quintessential educator.
I’ve known Billy for most of my life but only started working with him in 1999 when I enlisted as one of Joe Delacruz’s and Ron Allen’s foot soldiers in the famous Native Vote effort to retire U.S. Senator Slade Gorton. When Joe D. passed away Billy and Ron Allen became the face of the campaign. Both empowered me to mobilize youth and college students as well as organize the campaign’s signature Native vote rally on the University of Washington campus. With Joe Delacruz’s military flag flying high over the outdoor rally on the U of W’s flagpole Billy took to the stage and delivered his iconic “Salmon Vote” speech. We registered 1,500 enthusiastic Democratic voters that day and launched a tidal wave of momentum that would end the great Indian fighters political career.
As the years passed Billy would become a regular featured speaker at the Northwest Indian Youth Conference, Indian countries oldest and largest gathering of Native youth. He would inspire the 7th generation to take up the great cause of treaty rights and careers in Indian Affairs. He lectured relentlessly at regional colleges and high schools educating an entire generation of both Indian and non-Indian youth about the Boldt decision, Supreme court and treaty rights. Billy was appointed by Governor Mike Lowry to serve on the Board of Regents for Evergreen State College which later became a premier venue for Indian country. He loved spending time with students and they loved him.
In 2008 the National Indian Education Association chose Billy to keynote its annual convention in Seattle, Washington. I had the honor of introducing Billy to the NIEA delegates as he approached the stage. Three thousand members rose to their feet and delivered an ovation to both say thank you and provide encouragement. His address rambled at first then caught rhythm and eventually caught fire. His message was simple, schools had to integrate curriculum that taught Indian law, Indian Rights, Treaties, and so on, that we had to contextualize education and bring living history into our classrooms. That we had to own our educational destiny. As he concluded the delegates once again rose to their feet and gave him rock star treatment. This was an important moment for Billy. He had always garnered attention of an icon at Affiliated Tribes Northwest Indians and at National Congress of American Indians, but the outpouring of support at NIEA validated his many years, often lonely traveling to classrooms and campuses to tell our story – Indian country’s story.
Election cycles never end, and on the heels of the 2000 upset of Slade Gorton the team got together again for the 2004 Presidential election. This effort culminated with the Native vote rally in the Tacoma Dome. Billy’s close friend the late Senator Daniel Inouye attended as did other U.S. Senators and a Washington state Gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire (who won by 200 votes). While we were unsuccessful in the Presidential election, Northwest and national politics had arrived at the reality that the Native vote counts and not only does it swing elections it swings majority control in both houses of Congress.
Billy, like in the fishing wars was on the front lines of Native vote, when others were playing it safe with politics he was swinging for the fences and fearless in spending or losing his personal political capitol. If all leaders in Indian affairs showed this conviction and fortitude Indian country would be a lot better off.
When my term as President of NIEA ended in 2006 I still had a lot of unfinished business in the field of Native language revitalization so I launched the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, a single-issue advocacy organization. I called Billy and asked if he would serve on the advisory board, without hesitation he accepted. The purpose of my request was not because of friendship or a need to appoint well-known folks but because of a story he once shared.
In the heat of the fishing wars Washington State Attorney General Slade Gorton put treaties on trial in a series of legal actions. In a pivotal hearing Billy’s father Billy Frank Sr. began conversations from the witness stand with other elders close to the bench in their Coast Salish language. Gorton objected vehemently but the judge overruled his objection under the auspices of a translator being needed. The elders were actually discussing strategy and how to answer questions. Billy shared that their language played no small role in the subsequent judicial victory. Billy believed in Native languages and knew that was how his ancestors communicated and strengthened their blood tie to salmon. The Boldt decision gave life to treaty rights and salmon at the same time, both were hanging on by the slenderest of threads in a perilous state.
Northwest Indians believe salmon are people and closely related to humans not only did Indian country lose one of its greatest individuals, the salmon people have lost their greatest champion.
Ryan Wilson is an Oglala Lakota, and President of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages. Wilson is also a former National Indian Education Association President. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org