Billy Frank Jr. — activist, icon, environmental giant

The News TribuneMay 6, 2014 

Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr. played a leading role in protecting Northwest fisheries.


You could describe Billy Frank Jr. as a champion of treaty rights and clean rivers, but that doesn’t begin to capture him.

You’d have to add that he was a soft-spoken, gently humorous man who carried himself with the unassuming dignity of a Salish elder.

You’d then have to plumb for the inner qualities that turned an obscure Nisqually boy into an icon of the Pacific Northwest — a man whose craggy face would be carved into basalt if we had our own Mount Rushmore.

Frank — who died Monday — was large-souled, quietly charismatic, immensely intelligent and ferociously devoted to his cause.

The cause didn’t have a neat definition. It was a matter of civil rights and economic survival — securing the coastal Salish tribes’ right to fish, not just on their reservations, but also at their other “usual and accustomed grounds and stations,” as their treaties put it.

In 1945, when the 14-year-old Frank was first arrested for catching salmon in his family’s usual and accustomed grounds on the Nisqually River, Salish fishermen were being relentlessly pushed off spots where their ancestors had fished for centuries.

Frank — like other tribal fishermen — was trying to feed his family in an era when tribes were destitute and hungry. The subsequent arrests, conflicts and lawsuits of the “fishing wars” were consequences of simply trying to eat.

Frank was a central figure in the landmark 1974 Boldt decision that affirmed the treaty fishing rights and promised the tribes half of the region’s harvestable salmon.

But as Frank recognized, half of zero is zero. His cause had another facet: environmentalism. Beyond the courtroom, he saw the degradation of rivers and loss of habitat that threatened the existence of many salmon and steelhead runs.

Frank proved as capable an environmental leader as he was a civil rights champion. His versatility was extraordinary. As the occasion required, he could speak like a geologist, marine biologist, regional diplomat and eloquent tribal statesman.

He was a prolific writer. He had a natural talent for pulling together government regulators, environmental activists and corporate leaders. As chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, he spent decades working effectively with others to protect the region’s watersheds and salmon.

His death is hard to grasp; it is something like seeing a mountain disappear. The Pacific Northwest is a poorer place for his death, but a far richer one for his life.

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