In February of this year, Indian tribes in the northwest celebrated the fortieth anniversary of United States v. Washington. The case is commonly known as the Boldt decision for the judge who authored the opinion. However, the case is synonymous more for the leader who brought that fight to the forefront – that leader was Billy Frank Jr.
Early in his life, Billy made a vow to help lead the Nisqually people in honoring the opportunity to once again manage and regulate their own fisheries, a sovereign right that tribes did not give up in entering into treaties with the United States. Billy knew that the entire country would be watching his tribe and that they needed to take the utmost care as these solemn rights – and his people’s way of life was something their ancestors fought long and hard to maintain.
The Boldt ruling upheld tribal treaty rights and re-established the tribes as co-managers of salmon and the rivers on which we live. To this day, it represents the landmark decision for Native American civil rights in the contemporary history of the United States.
Billy was known for his activism long before the Boldt decision. But, as a renowned leader, he also knew the value of diplomacy as a means of reaching the goal of restoring and protecting the river, the salmon, and the way of life that his father and grandfather brought to him. Billy was told about the land, the river and the salmon and the tribal traditions that were carried on from generation to generation. He understood the importance of insuring its continuance for the generations coming up behind him.
Little did Billy know that his legacy would inspire the fight to protect other sovereign rights to self-governance as is evidenced through Indian gaming. The famous Boldt decision strengthened the legal framework for Indian tribes to be respected as equal governments under the Constitution of the United States. Part of Billy’s legacy will be as a tribal leader and advocate who brought opposing parties together and taught them to learn from one another, to respect one another and to work together for the common good. Billy was masterful in his ability to bring about unity and consensus. We will continue to learn from this great teacher, mentor and supporter that we are stronger when we are unified.
Billy was one of the most energetic and loving mentors that I ever knew. He always greeted me with a warm hug and a beautiful smile. He was like a father to me and always had loving words of encouragement to share. He was the ultimate warrior in how he carried himself. He had strong convictions, and he made them known. Billy’s ultimate goal was in protecting, restoring and preserving the environment, and his people’s way of life.
Billy never wavered in the defense of tribal sovereignty. Billy’s energy never waned. Until his passing he was still fighting for Indian country as Chairmen of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Just last month he testified before Congress on behalf of the Commission, fighting for full implementation of treaty fishing rights.
A member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Billy Frank was the person who removed the hands of oppression, who told them to release our lands and waters, who told them to set free the salmon and water. He challenged us all to understand that there is no such thing as ownership of land, of water, of the environment. He taught us all about coexistence and connection to the land, which is the traditional ways of life given to us by the Creator.
The Creator has asked for his return. We will always respect and hold to great accord what this man has accomplished for his people of the northwest coast, and for the many who understand what true stewardship means. Through his life’s work, he will never be forgotten, but the man will be deeply missed by everyone he touched.
Ernie Stevens Jr. is chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.
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