Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually Elder Who Fought for Tribal Rights, Walks On

Posted By Toyacoyah Brown May 7th, 2014 Last Updated on: May 7th, 2014

Sad news reported by many media outlets around Indian Country, including Seattle Times. Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually elder and fisherman who served for more than half a century as the charismatic voice of Northwest tribes fighting for fishing rights, passed away early Monday morning. He was 83.

“We are all stunned and not prepared for this,” said W. Ron Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam tribal chairman, who has worked with Mr. Frank since the early 1980s. “He was bigger than life. It’s a very sad day for all of us.”

Mr. Frank was first arrested for salmon fishing as a boy in 1945. He was beaten and jailed repeatedly as he and others staged “fish ins” demanding the right to collect Chinook and other salmon in their historical waters, as guaranteed under treaties when they ceded land to settlers in the 19th century. By the time celebrities like Marlon Brando showed up on the Nisqually River to assist them in 1964, the salmon wars had raged for decades.

Photo by Ann Yow / The Seattle Times, 1983

Photo by Ann Yow / The Seattle Times, 1983

In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the tribes’ right to half of the fish harvest — and the nation’s obligation to honor the old treaties. In 1993, another court decision extended that affirmation to the harvest of shellfish.

By then Mr. Frank already had become one of the nation’s most eloquent and influential tribal champions.

He fought in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to protect forests and salmon streams from excessive timber harvest and development. He battled in court, in endless public meetings and in private conversations with anyone who would listen. With his soft voice, strong handshake and endless stories, he disarmed senators and presidents.

“He wanted all these tribes to understand that if they worked together we could do anything,” his son, Willie Frank, said.

Gov. Jay Inslee called Mr. Frank not just a tribal leader but a state leader.

“We can’t overstate how long-lasting his legacy will be,” Inslee said in an interview. “He pushed the state when he needed to push the state. And he reminded the state when it needed reminding. His legacy is going to be with us for generations. My grandkids are going to benefit from his work.”

More photos, tributes and archived articles on Billy Frank Jr. are avilable on Seattle Times website.

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About Toyacoyah Brown

Toyacoyah Brown is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, currently living in Chicago. She received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. When she's not scouring the Internet for fun things to share with PowWows.com readers you can find her digging for vinyl in her local record store or curling up with a good book.

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alice voyles

May the Great Spirit give you rest Billy Frank, you worked hard for all of our people.


well he certainly is a strength that all American Indians and Firsts nations in Canada to learn and for a great leader never gave up for his people and all nations.He sure is a hero to many of his people and to his family sorry for your lost ,but his strength will be part of everyone who knew him.RIP Billy Frank.

Jeanne Zimmerman

RIP Billy. You are an inspiration to all.

Sally Howard

Go swiftly to the Great Spirit. Thank you for your caring and courage. RIP

Sally Howard

Go with speed to the Great Spirit Thank you for your caring and courage.. RIP.

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