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This screen capture from a Joe Biden campaign advertisement shows Billy Frank Jr.

A proposed bill in the state House of Representatives is aiming to replace a statue of 19th century missionary Marcus Whitman currently on display at the National Statuary Hall with one of the late nationally-renowned environmentalist Billy Frank Jr., of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. 

House Bill 1372 had its first reading on Jan. 26 and has been referred to the House’s State Government and Tribal Relations Committee. If passed, Frank Jr.’s bust would be among a small number of notable Native Americans to be displayed in the gallery. 

The bill was introduced by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the committee’s vice chair. The bill was cosponsored by more than two dozen House Democrats. 

Whitman, according to HistoryLink.org, was one of the first missionaries in the Pacific Northwest and helped establish the Oregon Trail, having reportedly been one of the first 120 wagons to start the perilous journey. 

His goal for immigrating, at first, was to “Christianize and ‘civilize’ Indians” of the region. His death in 1847 at the hands of Cayuse natives spurred Congress to take federal control over the territories of the region. 

“Whitman’s contributions to the creation of Washington were profound and important,” the bill reads. “Whitman has represented the state in the Statuary Hall for nearly 70 years. The Legislature finds that it is appropriate to replace his statue with one of a more contemporary Washingtonian to further celebrate the state and the continuous contributions Washingtonians have made in the 20th and 21st centuries.” 

Billy Frank Jr., who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a tireless advocate for native fishing rights, environmentalism, equality and justice. 

He chaired the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission for nearly 30 years, and he was instrumental in the founding of ecological groups that work today to protect the Nisqually River as well as the Puget Sound. 

“During his efforts, Billy Frank Jr. was arrested more than 50 times for exercising his treaty-protected rights to fish for salmon, the first arrest being when he was 14 years old,” the bill reads. “Despite long-standing persecution, Billy Frank Jr. worked tirelessly to protect salmon for the benefit and enjoyment of all Washingtonians. When salmon populations plummeted toward extinction, eventually to the point of being listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, Billy Frank Jr. vocally advocated to unify people to reverse the trend.”

The National Statuary Hall is a chamber in the United States Capitol Building that’s devoted to the collection of two statues chosen by each state in the union. The entire collection consists of 100 statues. 

In addition to Whitman’s statue, Washington also has on display a statue of Mother Joseph Parisau, a pioneering architect who led a group of five missionaries around the Pacific Northwest territories in the 19th century. According to the statuary collection, she was responsible for the construction of 11 hospitals, seven academies, five indian schools and two orphanages throughout the region. 

The power to replace statues lies primarily within the purview of the states, though if passed by the state Legislature the request would then need to be approved by the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. 

Between 2001 and 2019, eight statues have been replaced by states.

The statue must be made out of marble or bronze, according to the Architect of the Capitol, and the subject must be a deceased American who is renowned by the state. 

The governor’s office would be tasked with relocating Whitman’s statue to a location of its choosing, if the bill passes. The cost to replace the statue would fall on a committee designated through the passage of the bill, and no state general funds could be used. 

During Feb. 1 public testimony, many tribal members from across the Pacific Northwest voiced support for the bill and for Frank Jr., who was described by many as a consensus-builder and visionary. 

“His vision was for the future, his vision was for the next generation,” said Glen Gobin, vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribe. “It would be an honor for all Washingtonians to see Billy Frank Jr.’s statue in the nation’s Capitol.” 

The bill also received support from Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, who helped lead an effort while in Congress to pass the Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act, which renamed the delta refuge after him. 

“It’s not a good bill, it’s a great bill. It’s a great bill because Billy Frank was a great man,” Heck said during testimony. “Billy went from being a self-described ‘getting arrested guy’ when he was protesting on behalf of his treaty fishing rights — upheld by every court in the land — to being perhaps the greatest consensus builder and peacemaker ever around issues of cool, clean water, and healthy salmon runs and natural resources.” 

Heck, who said he walked often through Statuary Hall as a congressman, said he believes it is time to install a statue of Frank Jr. 

“Every single time any person from Washington visits our nation’s Capitol, they will stop, they will look up and they will stand tall and proud, because Billy Frank was a great man,” he said. 

Antonette Squally, vice chairwoman of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, said Frank Jr. was a man who was humbled through his fight for treaty rights and fish, and he had an intimate connection with the land and its people. She said the tribe was very appreciative of cooperation between the tribes and for Rep. Lekanoff for bringing forward the bill. 

In addition to being a sign of unity during this tumultuous time, Lekanoff noted it would recognize the first people of Washington while also amplifying Frank Jr.’s story. 

“During this time of equity, during this time of diversity, during this time of finding balance among our communities, there’s no one better than Billy Frank Jr., who stood with all of you … He’s been a man who’s stood across this great state, across our region, across this nation and brought people together, ” said the 40th Legislative District lawmaker.

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