Not until the 1974 Boldt decision in United States v. Washington did Billy Frank Jr. think that his treaty right to fish would be secure.
He didn’t think it would be secure when he and his family were being harassed and arrested by Washington state fish and game officers. Nor when those officers were cutting their nets and confiscating salmon. Nor when state officials and sport-fishing lobbies were blaming Indian fishermen, rather than commercial overfishing or habitat destruction, for declining salmon populations.
“We were fighting for our life—our survival,” Frank says in Trova Heffernan’s new book Where the Salmon Run: The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank Jr. (University of Washington Press, 2012). Indeed, Frank’s uphill battle was as arduous as the upstream swim fought by the salmon of the title. But the combination of his own determination, the media savvy of Assiniboine-Sioux activist Hank Adams, and the public involvement of celebrities like Marlon Brando about what was going at Frank’s Landing won the day.
The cultural and spiritual relationship between salmon and Pacific Northwest Indigenous Peoples dates to the beginning of time. “The Creator is the one who brought us here,” Frank said. “The Creator put that salmon there for us to survive. And all the shellfish.… We respected all of them.”
That’s why the ancestors retained the right to fish “at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations” when they signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854. The treaty was, in effect, a bill of sale, granting 2.24 million acres of land to the United States in exchange for the establishment of three reservations, cash payments over a period of 20 years and other considerations. On paper, treaties are held as the supreme law of the land, as per Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. But as Frank told the Department of Commerce in 2005, that wasn’t necessarily the case in real life.
“We made the people of this country free,” he told the department. “They didn’t own anything until we ceded the land to them.… But then, they didn’t honor that treaty. They didn’t honor that treaty one bit.”
Where the Salmon Run takes readers through the years of oppression that led to the fishing wars, to the civil disobedience and fish-ins in defense of treaty fishing rights, to U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt’s decision to uphold those rights, and to the formation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC) and ongoing efforts to restore salmon habitat.
But nearly 160 years of development, industry and bad shoreline–use planning have complicated that restoration. Frank, who grew up on the Nisqually River in Washington state, says that many salmon heading from the river to the ocean don’t make it past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge because of pollution. A study by the commission determined the region is losing habitat faster than it can be restored. On July 29, canoes participating in the 2012 Canoe Journey held a Healing of the Waters ceremony, pouring water from their home territories into Puget Sound’s Budd Inlet, the final stop on this year’s journey. After the ceremony, the canoes had to be trailered out of a local marina—because Budd Inlet is considered too polluted to set foot in.
Today, Frank is working to get the federal government to take control of salmon recovery. Current efforts are piecemeal and scattered, he says; agencies and programs must coordinate their activity, with the Justice Department enforcing the law when it comes to degradation of the environment.
“We believe that salmon recovery must take place at the watershed level because that’s where salmon begin and end their lives,” wrote Frank in an online commentary for the NWIFC in February. “We already have developed recovery plans and identified barriers to salmon recovery for most watersheds in western Washington. Those plans must be implemented and those barriers fixed.” Should that happen, he told Indian Country Today Media Network, the health of the marine environment could “turn around” in 100 years.
The book offers many details about Frank’s personal struggles and losses and his remarkable career—not only as a fisherman but as a U.S. Marine and Nisqually political leader. There is also ample space given to his family’s devotion to one another and their continuing contribution to education, environmental policy and Nisqually government.
Where the Salmon Run should be required reading for students of Washington state history, Native history and environmental policy. Meanwhile, the story of Frank, now 81, continues. As he told ICTMN, “The job is not over.”