The National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is home to two statues from each state. These statues celebrate prominent and influential citizens who shaped the state’s history. We propose that Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank Jr. be represented by one of Washington state’s two statues. Many people have contributed to Washington’s history, but few have made as profound an impact in the face of adversity as Billy.
Throughout his life, Billy brought people together to find common solutions to protect salmon and other natural resources for the benefit of all Washingtonians. He fought for justice through nonviolent and collective action. His story reminds us that pursuing a more just society creates a better society for everyone.
In the 1960s and ’70s, salmon numbers were in steep decline after decades of unregulated commercial overfishing and habitat destruction. Sadly, Indian people were blamed by many for the salmon’s decline. Countless native people were harassed, attacked and jailed for exercising their treaty-reserved right to fish. Billy was arrested many times because the state refused to recognize tribal treaty fishing rights, which are constitutionally protected.
Throughout this time, Billy advocated not just for the right to harvest salmon, but also the tribes’ right to manage salmon and the ecosystems they depend on. His vision was codified in the landmark 1974 Boldt decision, which established the 20 treaty Indian tribes in Western Washington as co-managers of the salmon resource with the state of Washington and reaffirmed tribal rights to half of the harvestable salmon returning annually to Western Washington. Without Billy’s efforts, salmon and all of us would be in a much worse place.
Billy, longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, passed away May 5, 2014, but his story continues to inspire people worldwide. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described him as “a legend that has walked among us,” comparing his legacy to those of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
A Korean War veteran, Billy received many honors throughout his life, including the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, the Martin Luther King Jr., Distinguished Service Award and the Washington State Medal of Merit. In 2015, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — by President Barack Obama.
Our state and region are defined by salmon, and no one has done more for salmon than Billy. Honoring him would acknowledge Billy’s contributions to protecting our resources for all Washingtonians. He would be the eighth Indigenous person to be honored in the National Statuary Hall.
While the state Legislature must approve sending a statue of Billy to Washington, D.C., it is not required to pay for it. Many other statues were paid for entirely by private donations. Our proposed bill follows the same approach to fund the creation and transportation of this statue.
Billy’s statue would replace that of missionary Marcus Whitman — who had a checkered relationship with Indian people — which has stood since 1953. The 1980 statue of hospital founder Mother Joseph would remain. Our bill also directs the state to find an appropriate and honorable place for the Whitman statue in our state.
Billy’s story highlights the contributions of Indian people who have lived here and cared for our natural resources since time immemorial. It also demonstrates the need to honor and uphold treaty rights, the importance of salmon recovery and habitat restoration, and the need for people to work together and co-manage resources.
Last summer, people across the country marched in the streets in the largest civil rights movement in U.S. history. People of all races are calling for a more just and equitable country for all. We must also heal from January’s unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol. Future generations will look back on this moment. A statue in our nation’s capital honoring the life of Billy Frank Jr. would be a lasting symbol of his commitment to nonviolent social change.
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