Thousands pay tribute to Billy Frank Jr. — activist, environmental giant, leader, friend

Staff writerMay 11, 2014 

— There were stories, prayers and songs.

And there were a few cuss words sprinkled in — largely for effect — because it’s hard to talk about the legacy and life of Billy Frank Jr. without mentioning his famous “Jesus Christ!” greeting, or “Who the hell is in charge here?”

Friends and family members recalled those quotes during the late Nisqually leader’s funeral service Sunday at the Little Creek Casino Resort’s Event Center near Shelton.

“We’re all going to miss this great man,” Squaxin Island tribal chairman David Lopeman said. “I always considered him chief — chief of all of us.”

Frank, longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, died May 5 at age 83. He was a central figure in the Indian fish-ins during the 1960s and ’70s that led to the court ruling known as the Boldt decision. The case affirmed 20 coastal and Western Washington treaty tribes’ rights to 50 percent of harvestable salmon.

“His legacy is going to live on until the end of time,” Frank’s son Willie Frank told The Olympian just before the service. “He wouldn’t want the tears and all of that. He’d want us looking for the future.”

An estimated 6,000 people attended the service — the largest turnout for an event in the resort’s history, according to Little Creek spokesman Greg Fritz. In addition to filling the event center, crowds also watched the service on jumbo screens from a large tent and other areas of the resort.

The service featured traditional Indian Shaker Church prayers, a presentation of a folded U.S. flag for the family — Frank had served in the Marine Corps — and remarks from more than 20 tribal leaders and elected officials.

“I often said that no one cared more about salmon and the planet Earth than our friend Billy,” said former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks.

Gov. Jay Inslee described Frank as a state and national leader. “When Billy Frank spoke, people listened,” he said.

Frank was born and raised on the Nisqually River.

“That river flowed through his veins and gave him strength,” said Swinomish tribal chairman Brian Cladoosby, who is president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Frank was arrested more than 50 times during the fish wars.

“He taught us that we have to take care of the salmon; they are a tribe too,” Lopeman said in an interview with The Olympian prior to the service. “Each run is a tribe. He taught a lot of us that.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said she’ll remember Frank being “full of fight, full of joy and full of life.”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell described him as “a legend that has walked among us,” and she compared his legacy to those of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Cantwell recalled inviting Frank to conduct a blessing ceremony of her office when she was newly elected. After learning the cleansing would involve burning ceremonial sage, she told him she was nervous about security issues on the nation’s capitol.

“He said, ‘Getting arrested? That’s something I know how to do well,’ ” Cantwell said with a laugh.

Cladoosby described Frank as a teacher, a truth teller and a rebel rouser.

He said Frank also was a mentor for many tribal leaders, and a family man who spent his life fighting to protect the Nisqually River.

“Billy treated everyone with respect, even when we failed to live up to his expectations,” Cladoosby said. “Billy also showed us how to cuss with class. You can’t really talk about Billy without mentioning cussing. He’s the only one who could swear and make it sound like a Hallmark card.”

Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp referred to Frank as “a historic visionary.”

Over the years, they attended many meetings together. Frank knew the treaty language by heart and often said their work was about preserving the way of their ancestors while protecting tribal rights and natural resources for the next seven generations, she said.

When Frank spoke, “it was something that ignited your heart, and your mind,” Sharp said. “You wanted to go out to battle that day.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433; lpemberton@theolympian.com; @Lisa_Pemberton

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