It’s difficult for Willie Frank III to talk about his father.
In the commons at Wa He Lut Indian School at Frank’s Landing on Wednesday, Frank III stood in front of his father’s canoe hanging overhead as he addressed a crowd of people.
The cedar, shovel-nosed canoe — rugged, tattered, and water washed — floated delicately, surrounded by nets and paddles on display.
A legendary craftsman and Nisqually Tribal Elder Johnnie Bobb fixed up the cedar vessel for Billy Frank Jr. in 1954 after the recently-discharged U.S. Marine service member inquired about its unfinished state.
For the next 10 years, and through the early parts of the Fish Wars, Frank Jr. would use the canoe to wade the waters, creating “good mischief,” and travel up and down the Nisqually River.
Now, nearly 70 years later, the boat hangs in the school as a bold reminder of the importance of Frank Jr.'s fight for Native sovereignty, fishing rights and environmental protection.
But soon, there will be another testament to his legacy. This time, constructed out of bronze or marble, and of Frank Jr.’s likeness. Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday, April 14, signed into law House Bill 1372, which will place a statue of Billy Frank Jr. in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.
“When we talked about this process and where to sign it, I couldn’t think of a better place to be but right here in the lobby of Wa He Lut Indian School where my father’s canoe hangs still,” Frank III said.
The bill was introduced earlier this year by state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, and bipartisan support saw the piece of legislation fly through the state Legislature during a coronavirus-focused session that’s still ongoing.
Inslee, Lekanoff and the Frank family were also joined by Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, as well as Nisqually Tribal members and elders. Gifts, including cedar hats and canoe paddles, were given to the lawmakers from the Tribe to mark the momentous occasion.
“We can’t send the Nisqually River to the Capitol or Mount Rainier. But we can send Billy Frank Jr. and this is a huge honor for the state of Washington and thus for the United States of America because we are sending to the U.S. Capitol the best of the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
The bill’s signing represents a midpoint in the memorial effort.
Frank Jr.’s statue will eventually replace that of 19th century missionary Marcus Whitman, which will be sent to Walla Walla County. A committee will soon meet to discuss picking an artist and its material.
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. Replacing statues is a regular occurrence for states, and Whitman’s statue has adorned the halls for nearly 70 years.
State lawmakers see the opportunity to place Frank Jr.’s likeness at the state Capitol as a key junction to highlight historic Native American figures and educate the public on the importance of environmental preservationism on the national stage.
“From the time he was that self-described ‘getting-arrested guy,’ to the time he was the great reconciler, he guided us, he inspired us and he taught us,” Heck said. “As I’ve said often, I don’t think it could be said too often, Billy Frank was a great man. He deserves to be in Statuary Hall, but, you know what, I think we deserve for him to be in Statuary Hall, to see him up there.”
Heck said Frank Jr.’s ability to unite people and his ties to the Nisqually Indian Tribe, who have lived along the river and on the Yelm prairie for time immemorial, serves as great reason to prop up his bust as a timeless icon.
“Billy will stand in Washington, D.C., amongst the greatest of the greats, as the great man that he is, and he will tell the story of who we are as Native American people, the first Americans, the first Washingtonians,” said Lekanoff, who represents the 40th Legislative district. “He will make sure that your children’s children’s children of this great America will know who you are and where you come from.”
Lekanoff is from Yakutat, Alaska, and the only Native American legislator currently serving in the state House or Senate. Washington state’s fight to save its dwindling salmon and native fish populations has been something she’s taken note of long before she arrived.
“I came to Washington and I sat with the tribes and I said ‘Where is your salmon, where are your eulachons, where is your seaweed, where are your clams?’ And my heart broke as a tribal leader said — and it was Billy — ‘We’re still fighting for them to return,’” Lekanoff said.
A Legacy, Leader, Father and Uncle
It started when he was 14.
A Nisqually youth raised out on Frank’s Landing, Frank Jr.’s first run-in with the game wardens would be as a mere teenager fishing the lands his people had for multiple generations.
“He’d set a net on the Nisqually River the night before to snare fish from the late chum run headed for the Muck Creek freshnet which burst forth around that time every year. He hid his canoe under a fallen maple and arose early the next morning, while it was still dark, to claim and clean his catch,” read a column from historylink.org.
Throughout the 1960s and the Fish Wars, multiple “fish-ins” would be hosted at Frank’s Landings and other locations along the Nisqually River. Frank Jr., a leading resistor, would eventually be arrested more than 50 times fighting to protect the fishing rights of his tribe, and others.
“Some of our elders mentioned that it was the last stand, it was the Indian’s last stand,” Frank III said. “So, I always go back to that and I tell people if it wasn’t for not just my father, but for all of the other men who stood up and fought for our treaty right, we might not be here.”
The resulting Boldt Decision, made in United States v. Washington, upheld Native tribes’ rights to fish their own waters and upheld treaties as the law of the land.
Frank Jr. was on 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.
Before his passing in 2014, he made many intimate and lifelong connections with people all around the Sound and the Nisqually Valley.
Heck said they would call Frank Jr. “Uncle Billy,” and Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said the late activist, with whom he was close with, was the “greatest man who was born in Washington.”
“For him, all that negativity in his life he turned positive. He made this his life. We’re all here for a reason, we’re all here for a purpose,” Frank III said. “And now, as I get older, I realize committing my life to this is not filling my dad’s shoes because nobody could do that, nobody could do that. But for us, it’s really that ‘Billy magic,’ as people say, that’s really what it is and the effect he had on people is huge.”
The Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee has been created to carry out the logistics of the replacement with the bill’s passage.
No money from the state’s general fund will be used for the committee’s business. The committee is allowed to accept gifts, grants, or endowment funds from public and private institutions to carry out the installation through the Washington state Treasurer’s Office.
The committee will be made up of the governor, the lieutenant governor, the state House speaker, the House and Senate minority leaders, two members from western Washington treaty tribes, a member from an environmental nonprofit, a member from Frank Jr.’s family, and a number of other preservationist and arts committee members.
Inslee said he didn’t have any sculptors in mind, adding that they’ll try and make many of those decisions as a group, but noted that whoever’s hired for the task will “have some character to work with.”
“Billy Frank Jr. was a character and everybody who came into contact with him was brightened by his vastity and his life and his friendship, and I’m sure that’s going to be captured in this statue,” Inslee said. “I’m really looking forward to this, in part because Billy was such a live wire and he was ... an impressive person as well.”
Referring to the Sakakawea statue North Dakota installed in 2003, Inslee said Statuary Hall is getting in touch with a new spirit of America and Frank Jr. will likely be very emblematic of that.
“What I hope they realize is that his legacy helped all the people in the state of Washington. Billy Frank Jr. fought for salmon, he helped have clean water for all our children, tribal and non-tribal. When I talk about the best of Washington, I believe that because it helps everybody in Washington. When he stood up for clean water, it helped everybody in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
The governor has until Sept. 30 to submit a letter to the architect of the U.S. Capitol Building requesting the replacement of the statue. It could be months, or even years, before the statue is erected in the hall, Inslee said.