Hundreds of people — including tribal, local, state and federal leaders — gathered Tuesday to celebrate the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge’s official name change to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
Willie Frank said it was a fitting honor for his dad, who founded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and served as its chairman for more than 30 years, until his death in 2014.
“This place is very powerful in medicine for all of us as Indian people,” Willie Frank told The Olympian. “You know, for him, he’d come down here and walk along the delta all the time, no matter how he felt. … To be on the river was medicine for him.”
The event featured a prayer and songs by the Nisqually tribe’s Canoe Family and remarks from more than a dozen people, including U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, Nisqually Indian Tribe Chairman Farron McCloud, Squaxin Island Tribe Councilman Jim Peters and former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks.
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“He’s with us today, you can feel him — cussing at us, laughing at us,” McCloud said of Billy Frank with a chuckle. “But what a great, great man Billy was, and this is a great, great day.”
Most of the speakers told personal stories about Frank, referring to him as a civil rights leader, a collaborator and a friend. Frank was a key player in the “fish wars” of the 1960s and ’70s, and was arrested more than 50 times. His activism was instrumental in the landmark Boldt decision that restored tribal fishing rights, upholding the terms of the original treaty.
“To see that he is honored here forever really fills the soul,” Jewell said.
“Billy’s leadership helped show us the way on how we need to uphold trust and treaty obligations.”
Heck said he sponsored legislation to change the name of the refuge near Lacey, where the Nisqually River meets Puget Sound, because it fit in well with Frank’s legacy of promoting clean water and environmental stewardship.
Everyone loved Frank, even if they didn’t always agree with him, Heck said. Everyone revered Frank, he said.
“The profane ‘Jesus Christ!’ the big hug and the smile,” Heck recalled.
“We rename this refuge for Billy to keep his words alive, and oh, what beautiful words they were: ‘I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements: They tell us how healthy things are, how healthy we are. Because we and they are the same.’ ”