THE measure of Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy and greatness might be the crush of public officials eager to praise his life, extend condolences and celebrate his achievements on behalf of Northwest tribes and their treaty rights.
Decades ago, Frank was pummeled, bloodied and arrested for demanding the United States of America honor long-standing treaty rights to catch salmon in traditional tribal waters. He was arrested more than 50 times.
Triumphs in federal court and his boundless spirit would take him on a ceaseless journey that only ended Monday morning with his death at age 83 as he prepared for another busy day.
Frank fought to make America honor its obligations in tribal treaties. The fight took him from the banks of the Nisqually River to the country’s highest courts. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes’ right to half of the fish harvest. Another legal victory followed in1993 for the harvest of shellfish.
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Hank Adams, a longtime friend and political strategist for Frank’s multifaceted efforts, described him as “the best spokesman for the salmon for the past 40 years.” Adams said Frank was also articulating concerns for water, timber and all natural resources for everyone.
President Obama on Monday praised Frank’s courage and determined effort on behalf of the nation’s natural resources and tribal fishing rights.
Those were extraordinary triumphs for civil rights and justice, but they were not the end of Frank’s vigilance.
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians marveled at Frank’s ability to ponder and appreciate a rich tribal legacy, and look generations into the future.
Sharp noted that Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, was recently on a panel with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell discussing the importance of climate change and what must be done on behalf of those who come later.
He was due in the nation’s capital later this month to celebrate the legacy of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Their close working relationship dated to 1987 when Inouye became chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Frank was highly recommended to Inouye by the vice chairman, Washington’s then-U.S. Sen. Dan Evans, who as governor had once branded him a “renegade.”
A man on a mission, Frank’s varied roles and tireless presence were remarkable. Micah McCarty, past chairman of the Makah Tribal Council, recalls Frank’s service as a member of the board of trustees at The Evergreen State College, appointed by Govs. Mike Lowry and Gary Locke.
This Nisqually fisherman was seemingly everywhere, and he was teased about his constant driving. A minor stroke while giving testimony last year to a Senate finance panel in Washington, D.C., briefly slowed him down, then he was on the road again.
Frank’s words, deeds and accomplishments extend from salmon redds to the corridors of power in state capitols and Washington, D.C.
Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy is represented in his tenacious spirit and constant movement on behalf of tribal rights, salmon, the health of the natural world and the obligations to those who will follow.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).