I had the good fortune of attending Billy Frank, Jr.’s 80th birthday celebration on March 11-12 on the lands of the Squaxin Island people in Washington State. Billy, as many within and without Indian country know, is considered one of the finest, frankest, and most ferociously effective leaders of our time. During the two-day celebration literally dozens of people, including political elites from numerous Native Nations, federal officials like Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and representative Norm Dicks of Washington, state politicians like Governor Chris Gregoire of Washington, and many friends and relatives, expounded, either in person, by phone, or in writing, upon the unique combination of qualities that Billy possesses that make him such a beloved figure.
This column is far too short to allow a full accounting of all of Billy’s remarkable qualities. But a few of his more endearing characteristics, repeated often during the event, warrant mention. Numerous individuals spoke of Billy’s zest for life; his love of the land, the sea, and, of course, the salmon; his unconquerable will in defense of the Nisqually people (and all Native peoples), treaty rights, and the sovereignty of not only indigenous peoples but the flora and fauna of land and sea that have a right to autonomy as well; his exquisite and timely use of expletives and deletives that can inject both urgency and humor, depending on the moment; and his unrivaled skills as a pragmatic strategist and diplomat, able to effectively interact and eventually persuade sometimes bitter opponents that the larger goals of indigenous self-determination and respect for the dignity and vitality of the ecosystem are in the best interests of all the constituencies in the Northwest and beyond.
Billy was hailed as a genuine leader, as one who has always placed the needs of the indigenous nations, the earth and her waterways, and the many species we are intimately linked to, above his own. As evidence of this, this event featured the unveiling of the Billy Frank Jr. Endowment for Salmon, a fund that will aid in the enhancement of salmon and their habitat indefinitely.
As I listened to all those warm and impassioned testimonials, expressed with the warm and sincere laughter that is intrinsic to such occasions, and feasted on the fine foods laid out before us, I was reminded of two other men whose lives and actions followed a shared trajectory with Billy’s: Vine Deloria, Jr. and Hank Adams. Vine, arguably the greatest native scholar, and Hank, arguably the most gifted native strategist and peacemaker, were and are ultimately tied to the peoples and the treaty and fishing rights struggle that has long defined the Northwest.
All three men are rightly considered outstanding leaders, each wielding a bevy of unique qualities that have propelled them to lead remarkable lives and to achieve profound accomplishments in their principled efforts on behalf of Native Nations and the earth.
But were these three individuals born with the innate skills, necessary dedication, and values to achieve what they did? Or, are Adm. William F. Halsey’s comments on leadership more fitting: “There are no great men. Just great challenges which ordinary men [and women], out of necessity, are forced by circumstance to meet.”
I have a hard time conceiving of these three central figures as “ordinary,” yet there is, I think, something of vital importance in Halsey’s statement that calls for greater attention in Indian country.
Hank Adams, in some of his work, has spoken of what he calls personal sovereignty. This is a noteworthy concept that is deeply rooted in our collective history as Native peoples. It suggests to me that every human being, and not just those from particular families, with degrees from elite institutions, or with fatted bank accounts, is a sovereign, autonomous being. And as such, every individual has the capacity, especially when confronted by extraordinary circumstances or events, to rise up and fully engage those challenges and leave their own distinctive imprint, no matter their age, tribal affiliation, gender, educational background, blood quantum, financial status, or religious inclination.
In effect, every Native person is and ought to be a genuine change agent and has the inherent capability of directly influencing all that they are surrounded and imbued by. Our Nations have been blessed to have Billy Frank, Vine Deloria, and Hank Adams, as well as many others, fighting for us.
But we must not allow what some have termed the “cult of leadership” to detract us from developing our own individual personalities and particular talents. After all, every sovereign Nation is sovereign only because it is peopled with sovereign individuals.
Professor David E. Wilkins holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His recent book publications include American Indian Politics and the American Political System, 3rd ed (co-authored with Heidi Stark) (2010), Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009), and On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (by Felix Cohen) (2006).