It’s not often I’ll post here about someone not based in North Carolina. But Billy Frank Jr. was a titan of a man whose life deserves wide celebration and remembrance. If you knew Billy, then you know why. If you weren’t aware of his life and work, I’d like to take a few minutes to explain.
Where I come from out West, the treaties Indian tribes signed with the United States government were largely made in peace. In exchange for all of the land that now makes up western Washington, 2.2 million acres, tribes like Billy’s Nisqually tribe signed agreements with Gov. Isaac Stevens to preserve their way of life.
It was a pretty sweet deal for the settlers: they got rich, fertile land upon which they could prosper. All the tribes really wanted: to keep fishing and hunting, feeding their families and preserving a culture that had been around since time immemorial. By signing these treaties, the tribes were codifying those rights into law: Article 6, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution says that treaties are the “supreme law of the land,” on a par with the constitution itself.
But soon, those rights were violated by settlers who wanted to take all the fish and game for themselves, and by state governments who were less than interested in honoring treaty commitments.
What the Pacific Northwest needed was a leader with the passion, charisma and guts to stand up for what was right. Luckily, it had Billy.
The Martin Luther King of Northwest coast native rights was arrested more than 50 times during the so-called “fish wars” of the 60s and 70s for acts of civil disobedience. He was beaten, shot at, slandered and spit on, but he never let it embitter him.
Billy was larger than life, too. A gregarious, friendly man with the firm handshake of a lifelong fisherman, you always knew he was in the room and were always glad of it. It says something that, though he was in his 80s, his passing has stunned many of us. Billy Frank Sr. lived to be 104. I assumed we’d have Billy around for another decade or two, at least. Even his political opponents largely loved Billy, and those that didn’t had to respect him.
Billy was one of the reasons I went to work for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, an organization he chaired for more than 30 years. Besides his passion for treaty rights, Billy understood as few do that healthy fish runs require paying close attention to ecological preservation.
Without habitat, fish and elk have no way to sustain themselves — and neither do we. Billy was a leader with vision who always saw the big picture. He saw the connections between social justice for communities of color and environmental protection. He was passionate about building a better future for native youth — and for everyone.
Up until his last days, Billy was working to make sure that his kids, and yours, and theirs, and theirs — and however many “theirs” you want to attach on the end — would have a healthy planet that would support wild salmon. He was working to protect the sacred commitments that in turn protect the communities he loved.
If you care about the U.S. Constitution, you should care about Billy Frank. If you’re concerned with honoring oaths and the dignity of keeping your word, you should be glad he lived. If you fight for social justice in any capacity, you had a fellow traveler. If you’re concerned about the fate of the planet we’re leaving to our children, you owe him a debt.
And if you have a beating heart in your chest, as God is my witness, you would have loved him.