From the time he was first arrested, at the age of 14, for fishing near his home, Billy Frank Jr. had been a fierce and tireless champion for salmon, tribal sovereignty and the right of Northwest tribes to fish in their traditional waters.
Nearly 70 years of advocacy ended on Monday when the Nisqually tribal elder died at his home. He was 83.
Frank figured prominently in Northwest fish-in demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s that eventually led to sweeping changes in how salmon and other fish are managed in Washington state.
He was arrested more than 50 times for “illegal fishing” during the protests that came to be known as the Fish Wars. Patterned after the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the campaign was part of larger nationwide movement in the 1960s for American Indian rights.
Cynthia Iyall, chair of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, said in a statement Frank was “just Billy” to the tribal people. He was their neighbor and friend, she said.
“Whether visiting at Frank’s Landing, meeting officials or dedicating a new tribal facility, Billy knew no strangers. His infectious smile and warm hug tempered his passionate spirit with a deep love for humanity. It was this unique blend of drive and heart that both endeared our people to him and disarmed his foes. To meet Billy was to hug Billy. This was the uncle we knew and loved.
“Billy will be sorely missed and long remembered. His powerful voice and message will be heard for generations to come,” she said.
Frank’s death reached all the way to the White House.
“Today, thanks to his courage and determined effort, our resources are better
protected, and more tribes are able to enjoy the rights preserved for them more than a century ago,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “Billy never stopped fighting to make sure future generations would be able to enjoy the outdoors as he did, and his passion on the issue of climate change should serve as an inspiration to us all.”
Gov. Jay Inslee added his praise.
“Billy was a champion of tribal rights, of the salmon and the environment,” the governor said. “He did that even when it meant putting himself in physical danger or facing jail.”
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck called Frank a friend.
“Billy Frank, Jr., was a civil rights leader of historic significance,” he said in a statement. “For generations, folks will continue to write about him and talk about the good he did, not just for tribes, but for all of the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest.
“Billy was a dear friend and I join with those in Washington and around the country who grieve the passing of this passionate activist and exceptional leader.”
Frank’s Landing, his family’s home along the Nisqually River, became a focal point for fish-ins. Frank and others continued to put their fishing nets in the river in defiance of state fishing regulations, even as game wardens watched and cameras rolled.
Demonstrations staged across the Northwest attracted national attention, and the fishing-rights cause was taken up by celebrities such as the actor Marlon Brando, who was arrested with others in 1964 for illegal fishing from an Indian canoe on the nearby Puyallup River.
Salmon was central to his culture, as with most Northwest tribes, and Frank devoted decades of his life to ensuring that fish, water and the tribal way of life were protected, said Washington state Sen. John McCoy, who is a member of the Tulalip tribe.
“It all revolved around fishing and the ability to fish,” McCoy said. “He found it extremely important that this tradition be maintained.”
Frank was also known for his warmth and for giving out big hugs or gently ribbing people.
In 1992, he was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, whose winners include former President Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu.
Frank served as the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission since 1977. The organization of 20 Western Washington tribes was created in 1974, after the court case brought by the federal government against the state of Washington.
U.S. District Judge George Boldt, who decided the case in what came to be known as the “Boldt decision,” affirmed the tribes’ right to half of the fish harvest — and the nation’s obligation to honor the old treaties.
The ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, effectively made the Northwest tribes co-managers of the resource and laid the foundation for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
The decision had a sweeping effect on other tribes in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere as it triggered other treaty rights cases and changed attitudes toward American Indians, said Richard Whitney, who was appointed a technical fisheries adviser by Boldt after the decision.
Over the next 40 years, Frank continued to press for tribal fishing rights and protection of natural resources, including improving water quality, restoring habitat and removing culverts to ease fish passage.
“We ceded all this land to the United States for a contract to protect our salmon, our way of life, our culture,” he told The Associated Press in 2012. “We’re gatherers and we’re harvesters. And they forgot about us. They built their cities, they built their university. They built everything, and they forgot about us tribes.”
But Frank was also the first to give praise and support, he said.
Only weeks ago, he and other tribal members met with federal environmental regulators to push for more stringent water quality standards to reduce the amount of pollution that accumulates in fish. The standards would especially protect native people who eat large amounts of salmon and other fish from Washington state waters.
Merle Hayes, fisheries policy liaison with the Suquamish tribe, had known Frank for 25 years.
“He’s been so inspiring to all the tribes,” Hayes said. “He believed in the work that he was doing.”