Steve Pavlik: Billy Frank Jr. was part of the greatest generation

Billy Frank Jr., 1931-2014. Photo from Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Steve Pavlik was working on a book with Billy Frank Jr., who wanted to be remembered as a fisherman:
The world changed forever with the passing of Billy Frank, Jr. Billy was a human rights activist, fearless defender of tribal sovereignty and fishing rights, and environmental champion who spoke not only for his beloved salmon but for all natural life that exists within the beautiful Salish Sea region that he called home. Billy was a national treasure.

Billy is undoubtedly best known for his role in the Northwest “fish wars” - the struggle by tribes throughout the Puget Sound to force the State of Washington and the federal government to honor and respect treaties signed in 1854-55 that acknowledged the inherent right of tribes to fish at “all of the usual and accustomed” places. Billy was first arrested for “illegal” fishing at the age of 14, the first of more than 50 such encounters with law enforcement. In the end, the sacrifices made by Billy and his fellow fishermen were successful, and in 1974 resulted in the landmark decision handed down by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt in U.S. v Washington. Most important in this decision was that tribes were acknowledged to have the right to one half of the harvestable fish. A later U.S. Supreme Court decision would uphold the Boldt decision in its entirety

In 1981, Billy was named chair of the Northwest Indian Fishing Commission, a position he held until his death. Billy’s open personality and willingness to work with all parties, and most importantly the universal trust that all member tribes had in him, allowed him to lead the effort to fulfill one of the goals of the Boldt decision, that tribes assume their rightful role as co-managers of salmon and other natural resources.

Over the years Billy emerged as one of the most powerful voices in Indian Country - a voice with national and increasing international recognition. He was the recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, an honorary degree from Northwest Indian College, and the Indian Country Today’s American Indian Visionary Award. And while Billy spent much of his time traveling back and forth across the country, he always remained a man of the Salish Sea. He never forgot his initial calling, “to speak for the salmon.”

Get the Story:
Steve Pavlik: Billy Frank: In Memory of a Nisqually Fisherman (Indian Country Today 5/18)

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