FRANK’S LANDING, Nisqually Indian Reservation — He was arrested 50 times by state game wardens for practicing his treaty right to fish. But on Wednesday, Washington’s governor signed into law legislation that will send a statue of Billy Frank Jr. to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
One of the country’s most elegant and revered civic spaces, Statuary Hall is where states from around the country get to send two figures to represent the hopes and dreams of their people. Now Frank, a legendary Nisqually tribal leader and treaty rights activist, will take his place there, along with Mother Joseph Pariseau, an architect and humanitarian.
House Bill 1372 retires one of the statues now in the hall, of missionary Marcus Whitman, and returns it to Walla Walla County, replacing it with the statute of Frank. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
At a signing ceremony at the Wa He Lut Indian School on the Nisqually reservation. Gov. Jay Inslee said he was honored to sign it.
“Billy represents two basic Washington values, a thirst for justice, which he fought for, and the desire to protect our natural beauty and the natural world,” Inslee said at the ceremony held in the school’s atrium. Frank’s canoe — confiscated by game wardens in many raids on Native salmon fishermen — hung from the ceiling as the governor spoke.
Wednesday’s bill-signing was the second piece of legislation out of the 2021 session that addresses Native American representation. The Legislature Monday passed a bill that bans the use of Native American names, symbols and images as school mascots.
Wednesday was a day for memories and gratitude to a man who managed to put aside the memory of violence and injustice as he was beaten and jailed, to work as a tribal leader to affirm tribal treaty fishing rights and protect the salmon in the rivers he loved.
Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, prime sponsor of HB 1372, said Frank, who was known for exhorting Native people to tell their stories, will now bring their stories to the world.
Some statues can be cold, hard and gray, but not this one, said Lekanoff. “We will be able to taste the salmon in our mouth when we walk by, we will taste the salty air, his voice will speak.”
Frank’s example is more important today than ever, Lekanoff said. “It is a reminder to be kind. To respect one another.”
Craig Bill, director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, watched Billy Frank Jr. work with three governors in defense of salmon and treaty fishing rights. “He always brought the unity message, that we need to be at the table whether we agree or disagree,” Bill said. “The common ground was the salmon. He always shared that we needed to work together.”
Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said Frank, who died in 2014 at age 83, was one of the few people he had ever known who could make the transition from fighting to collaborating, leading the way on everything from improving state timber policies to protecting salmon habitat to defending treaty rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“He went from the self-described getting-arrested guy to the great reconciler,” Heck said. “Very few people I have ever known could do that.”
Like many, Heck said Frank held a unique place in his life. “With me, it’s profoundly personal,” Heck said. “I just loved him, we all called him Uncle Billy, and to know him was to love him.”
It is said that we die twice, Heck told the crowd: the first time, and when people stop talking about or remembering you. “But with what we do today, that will never happen with Billy Frank.”
Now that the bill is signed into law, a committee will be formed to select an artist to create the statue, and private funds will be raised to pay for its creation and installation. The artist will have plenty to work with. A big man with a trademark gray ponytail and the shoulders and hands of a lifelong fisherman, Frank was a powerful presence.
His usual greeting was a bear hug, a shower of good-natured profanity and an exhortation always to keep working on behalf of the salmon.
While he would have been glad to see the celebration Wednesday, he also would have told everyone to get right back to work, his son Willie Frank III, a member of the Nisqually Tribal Council, told the crowd. Many gathered for the bill-signing had worked with Billy Frank Jr. for decades and nodded knowingly.
After the ceremony, Frank III led the governor and several family members to the banks of the Nisqually River to Frank’s Landing, and stood with one of the state’s highest officials where his father had been arrested so many times. He explained to the governor the dynamics of the slide in the river where he and his family have fished now for a century; what made the swirl of current and quiet holding spot just right for big fish to hole up.
The sweet smell of budding cottonwoods was in the air, and the first fingerlings of Chinook and coho were heading downriver: the beginning of another run of the salmon his family had fished and fought for, now for so many generations.
After the pictures and congratulations, as the crowd dispersed, Frank III was quiet.
“I don’t think it has kicked in yet,” he said, his voice soft with awe and a sense of history. “It makes a circle,” he said. “This is the spot where everything happened.”
Wednesday’s honor was indeed another among a long run of other important recognitions. A Korean War veteran, Frank Jr. received 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 then-President Barack Obama.
“He is such a legend,” said Frank Jr.’s granddaughter Marie Frank, 35, who has four children of her own. She had seen the documentary films, she knows about the things her grandfather had been through. And now, before long, she will be taking her kids to see the statue raised in his honor in the U.S. Capitol.
“I am so excited,” she said. “I can’t wait.”