“I was the go-to-jail guy.” That’s how Billy Frank, Jr., (Nisqually) often described his role during the treaty fishing rights struggle in the Pacific Northwest of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Beginning as a teenager of 14, he went to jail more than 50 times and was arrested more than three times that. His canoes and gear were confiscated by the Washington fish and game police, who did not respect federal-tribal treaties, including the Medicine Creek Treaty that guaranteed fishing by the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin Island Tribes near Olympia, Washington.
Frank lived 83 years, more than three decades after the worst of the state assaults against his family and others of the Franks Landing Indian Community. The Landing was at the center of the treaty fishing movement. It was built on a six-acre area assigned to his father, Willie Frank, Sr., after his land allotment was confiscated for Fort Lewis, the military base across the Nisqually River from the Landing.
Billy thought he would live to be more than 100, because his father had done the same. His elder sister and matriarch of the Landing, Maiselle Bridges is 90, and in addition to being a major treaty fishing strategist and activist, started the Landing’s groundbreaking Wah-He-Lute Indian School for treaty education. Willie Frank, Sr. and his children, the second and third generations from their 1854 Treaty, figured prominently in the activism and the legal battles to save the salmon.
Frank lived long enough to have his and others’ treaty activism validated in United States v. Washington, by a federal district judge in 1974, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1975 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979. They chided the State of Washington for its recalcitrance to abide by treaties and held that tribal citizens could take 50 percent of the harvestable catch of anadromous fish, on and off-reservation at their usual and accustomed fishing places, for economic, subsistence and ceremonial purposes.
Although the fish wars of the 1960s and ‘70s were the most prominent, federal courts had decided treaty fishing cases in favor of the Native nations throughout the 1900s. The Supreme Court in 1979 made much of this, saying they’d seen this case five times that century and didn’t want to see it again. There was a volatile backlash to the decisions, and the Indian tribes were forced to litigate every aspect of their treaty fishing rights, including the state of the habitat and various other aquatic life, such as shellfish. These cases were also ruled in favor of the tribes.
The shellfish case was especially close to Frank and all the Nisqually People, because clams are integral to the Nisqually origin history. It was the last case in which Willie Frank Sr. was a witness; he was too elderly to go to the courthouse, so the judge held court at his home on the Landing. A creation totem—clan figures atop a giant clam, with myriad tiny Nisqually emerging from the shell— was both evidence in the case and a witness to the trial.
When Vine Deloria Jr., noted Standing Rock Sioux scholar/author, first talked about a traditional knowledge gathering on giants and little people, Frank jumped at the chance to host it at the Landing, and was eager to share the Nisqually origin history as little people. Frank, Deloria, Hank Adams (Assiniboine-Sioux), the Landing’s trusted advisor/organizer, and I convened there for what was to have been a treaties interview, but graduated to be a three-hour laugh fest.
Our “interview” started with Frank and Adams recalling enlisting Deloria as their lawyer in 1970 to go to New York City to meet with an Italian family that controlled a large share of the fish market there. The Medicine Creek Treaty Tribes and the Landing were being frozen out of the markets in the Pacific Northwest and needed a buyer for their salmon. The successful Deloria mission was a bright spot in the otherwise grim struggle, but even remembering the most serious moments of that time, Frank, Deloria and Adams were breathless from laughter.
After the Supreme Court decision and the first of many recognitions of Frank, the State of Washington returned one of his canoes, which is displayed at the Wah-He-Lute School and used as a teaching tool. Without Frank’s oral history and humor, the students are missing much of the treaty fishing story.
Frank did not live long enough to see the state of Washington lower its flags to half-staff in honor of his life and work. I like to think that he and his dad were visiting on the other side and stopped long enough to share a smile about that.
I knew Frank before he’d quite grown into his elder’s voice. He was naturally respectful, gracious and enthusiastic, and never lost those fine qualities. What he learned as an elder was how to hear the nuance of what people valued and honored most. He came to know how much leaders and followers alike needed encouragement, hope and love, and no one ever had too much of any of those things.
I often thought that there must be a thousand Billy Franks, for all the people who said he mentored them, changed their lives or just gave them a bear hug when they needed one most. Sometimes his hug or other gesture of kindness was the first remembered by those from cold or damaged homes.
Anyone who fought or supported the good fight had Frank’s devotion. He knew how very much there was to do—honoring treaties and our ancestors who made them for us; restoring more estuaries and habitat for salmon smolts; taking down more dams and building better fish ladders; cleaning the Puget Sound and all the polluted waters; and rejuvenating the gathering areas of berries, roots and other sacred foods.
Frank kept a map of environmental disasters, focusing on dead zones in the oceans, and used it to teach anyone who would listen about the climate change emergencies and the need for global environmental security. Frank could have no greater or more desired tribute than for others to enlist in the service of Mother Earth.
Frank was a good, beloved relative in the great community of life he loved so dearly and cared for so deeply. Now, he is the water and all its creatures; he is the forests and air and all life that belong there. For 83 years, Frank was a loving man. Now, he is love.