Over the course of several decades, Billy Frank Jr.’s fight for tribal rights, especially during the “fish wars” of the 1960s and ’70s, earned him names like “criminal,” “protester” and “no-good Indian.”
On Sunday, speakers at the Nisqually tribal activist’s memorial service described him in a far different way: leader, historic visionary and legend.
About 6,000 people attended Frank’s memorial service Sunday at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s event center at the Little Creek Casino Resort in Shelton, Mason County.
Frank died last Monday at his home. He was 83.
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Speakers at the memorial service recalled Frank’s work as the face of the 1960s and ’70s civil-rights movement for treaty rights, his determination during the fish wars even in the face of violence and arrest, and how he continued his work even after a federal judge affirmed Indian treaty rights to half the region’s salmon.
They likened him to humanitarians like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela.
They also spoke about the more personal side of Frank: his famous bear hugs and his ability to “cuss with class.”
“He was the spokesman for the salmon when no one else would speak up,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians. “It seemed like he would be with us forever.”
Flags across the state were flown at half-staff Sunday in Frank’s honor.
The service included more than 20 speakers, from lifelong friends to U.S. senators.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said Frank would be surprised at the number of people who lined up to memorialize him.
“If his spirit were here, he would say ‘Dagnabbit, are we really going to have all those speakers?’ ” said Cantwell, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Yes, it takes more than 20 speakers.”
Frank’s battle for treaty rights began when he was arrested in 1945 for fishing on the Nisqually River. He was 14. It was the first of more than 50 times he would be arrested.
He laughed about it later, Cantwell said. Frank told Cantwell that when he was in jail, bank robbers would ask him why he had been arrested. “He would reply, ‘Fishing!’ ”
Cantwell once asked Frank to come and bless her office in Washington, D.C., but told him she was worried they might get in trouble.
“He said, ‘You mean get arrested? That is something I know how to do!’ ” Cantwell recounted.
In 1974, after multiple, often violent, fish-ins where protesters would fish in areas that were restricted, U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes’ right to half of the fish in their traditional waters. The decision honored 19th-century treaties that promised Northwest tribes access to salmon and steelhead.
Frank understood the language and importance of the treaties, Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp said.
“He knew the context of treaties, and sometimes I wondered if Billy was there 150 years ago,” Sharp said. “But he could see seven generations ahead, too.”
After the Boldt decision, Frank continued his role as an activist for environmental issues, and his influence spread throughout Indian Country and the United States. He felt connected to the environment, friend Thomas P. Keefe Jr. said. Frank would refer to animals with titles, like “Mr. Beaver” and “Mr. Eagle,” and Keefe once told him he talked like they were people.
“He said, ‘Well, yes, but when we aren’t around, they talk about us like we are animals,’ ” Keefe said.
Politicians and friends alike recognized his passion, from his activism to his bear hugs to his speeches laced with profanity.
“He would swear and make it sound like a Hallmark card,” Cladoosby said.
One of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s last conversations with Frank occurred after Congress passed an appropriations bill that included funds for salmon restoration, she said. He was in a car, and when he put his phone on speaker, she could hear him and his friends yelling in celebration.
“That is the Billy I will remember,” Murray said.
Speakers urged everyone to continue Frank’s environmental activism, specifically concerning climate change and ocean acidification. Two weeks before he died, Frank attended a tribal summit
and stressed the need for tribes to act quickly to address the threat of climate change.
His impact will be felt for generations, they said.
“When we defeat carbon pollution, it’s going to be because of the influence of Billy Frank,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.
But the work isn’t done yet, his niece Nancy Shippentower-Games said.
“Nobody can take his place,” she said. “But people can learn from him.”
After Frank died, a reporter asked state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, who would pick up where Frank left off.
response: “All of us.”
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or firstname.lastname@example.org