Remembering Billy Frank Jr.

Puget Sound Partnership
Jun 15 · 7 min read
Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

On April 14, 2021, Governor Inslee signed House Bill 1372 into law. The bill replaces the statue of Marcus Whitman in the National Statuary Hall with a statue of Billy Frank Jr. (1931–2014), member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, treaty rights activist, champion for salmon recovery, and member of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council.

From a young age, Frank fished in defiance of Washington state fishing regulations, which at the time did not abide by the federal government’s treaties with Northwest tribes. He was arrested for the first time at the age of 14 for fishing in the Nisqually River. Throughout his years of civil disobedience, fish-ins, and demonstrations, Frank was arrested more than 50 times, but his spirit was undaunted. His work with tribal leaders paved the way for the 1974 Boldt decision, United States v. Washington, which reaffirmed the treaty rights of Washington tribes and established tribes as co-managers of salmon and other fisheries with the state.

The Boldt decision led to the creation of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, where Frank served as chair for more than thirty years. In 2007, Gov. Christine Gregoire asked Frank to co-chair the initial Puget Sound Partnership effort, along with Bill Ruckelshaus, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Jay Manning, then director of the Washington State Department of Ecology. Frank later served as a member of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council and worked with Dennis McLerran, former administrator for Region 10 of the EPA, and Martha Kongsgaard, lawyer, philanthropist, and environmentalist.

Photo of Billy Frank Jr. holding an award certificate from NOAA. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Photo of Billy Frank Jr. holding an award certificate from NOAA. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Billy Frank Jr. holding an Environmental Hero Award he received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

McLerran, Manning, and Kongsgaard expressed their happiness and excitement about the news that Billy Frank Jr.’s statue will soon enter the National Statuary Hall.

“I think it’s absolutely a fitting tribute to someone who for many years fought an uphill battle to get tribal treaty rights and fishing rights the legal status they deserve,” McLerran said. “And despite all of the racism and abuses that he suffered, he came through it as a person who was always optimistically persistent. It’s absolutely a fitting tribute to someone who was that strong, consistent voice for Puget Sound recovery and recovery of the salmon. He was a civil rights leader, he was a tribal leader, but he was a generational leader for all people that value Puget Sound and the salmon and the resources here. I can think of no one more deserving of that kind of honor than Billy Frank Jr.”

Manning said, “I am thrilled and excited. It is so well deserved and overdue. We should put a statue of Billy in our state capital, as well as the national capital. And celebrate him and his achievements. He was truly a giant in this field.”

Reflecting on what it would mean for Frank’s statue to represent Washington state in the National Statuary Hall, Kongsgaard spoke about the hope that it would provide. “After a year of desperate disintegration, racial reckoning, climate calamity and despair, a statue of this beloved son of Washington state, proud Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank Jr., the finest that this part of the planet has ever offered, would give a dispirited and weary nation an example of a lion of a man who knew how to heal a fractured world,” she said.

Memories of Billy Frank Jr.

Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

When asked about what they think about when they remember Billy Frank Jr., both Manning and McLerran bring up his habit of greeting people with warmth and enthusiasm.

“Well, for me the first thing I think of when I think of Billy is the way he would greet you when you hadn’t seen him for a while,” Manning said. “Even if you’d seen him the day before, it was the same. It was this huge smile and boisterous greeting. It was something like, “Well, Jay, how the hell are you?” And he’d grab you in this big bear hug. It certainly wasn’t just me — it was just about everybody that he knew he greeted that way. And it was genuine. It made you feel that he was thrilled to see you. It was a warm and unique way of connecting with somebody right off the bat.”

McLerran echoed Manning’s memories. “Billy is one of those people that made a strong impression on just about everybody. And my strongest memories of Billy are whenever you would have a meeting together, Billy would have the brightest smile and would come up and say, ‘Dennis, goddammit, how are ya?’ And he’d flash that smile and he’d give you a bear hug and then you’d get down to business. I still hear his voice whenever a treaty rights or fish issue comes up.”

Kongsgaard recalls Frank’s effortless connection with the natural world. “It is something that was imprinted on his character ‘prehistorically’ — long before the battles at Frank’s Landing or the triumph of the Boldt decision or the wonders of bringing children into this world,” she said. “It was his hereditary kinship with nature and his ancient heritage that kept him vigilantly at this work until the day he died at 83, when he was, as on most days, on his way to a meeting about fish and tribal treaty rights.”

Photo of Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Photo of Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Billy Frank Jr. speaking at a meeting. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

An inspirational leader who brought people together

Manning, McLerran, and Kongsgaard all remember Frank as a leader who incited action and brought people together in collaboration — not only in his work with the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, but throughout every area of his life.

“He was one of the most inspiring people I ever met,” Manning said. “And he never made you feel like giving up. He never made you feel bad that we weren’t making the progress we needed to. He would inspire you to do more, to work harder, to rededicate yourself.”

Photo of Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Photo of Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Billy Frank Jr. Photo credit: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Manning recalled thinking that both Frank and Bill Ruckelshaus had a lot in common as leaders. “A striking difference maker for both of them was, they could operate at these high levels amongst politicians and powerful leaders in the state and in the country. They were comfortable doing that and were very effective doing that. A common affliction of people who do that is that you lose touch with your roots and where you came from. But they were very aware of where they came from and very connected to their roots, and that never changed no matter what they were doing. They always kept their feet on the ground, were humble, understood where they came from, never lost that. In my experience that’s unique. I loved that about both of them. He and Bill Ruckelshaus were two of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. I was really lucky to work with them.”

McLerran also spoke about his admiration for Frank’s vision and his ability to build consensus. “I describe him as a remarkable leader, someone who was charismatic, someone who really understood the relationship between clean water and habitat and the health of Puget Sound, the health of the salmon, and the health of the people. He was crystal clear in his vision and he stuck to it. As someone who could organize folks in a way that he did and could be a friend to top leaders while at the same time being a compelling, common sense advocate — that’s a unique set of talents.”

After Frank passed away in May 2014, Kongsgaard wrote a piece remembering Frank. In that piece, she articulated her feelings about Frank’s unique leadership qualities and why he did what he did.

“What was it in Billy’s cultural and inherited DNA passed to him from his father, Willie Frank Sr., and generations of tribal elders before him that created this deeply decent partner, both a proud bearer of Indian tradition and a willing translator across cultures? Billy was a fearless advocate for what was good for his people’s interest and the planet’s interest, which in the end he argued was good for the greater public’s interest, out seven generations. Working unsentimentally but with great humanity, humility, and without rancor, Billy Frank was the rare leader — more quiet than shrill, more discreet than brash, more serious than trivial, but relentless — who worked at the intersection of one of the nation’s seminal civil rights battles and beyond as warrior, peacemaker, consensus builder, and finally: visionary.”

Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said, “Passage of House Bill 1372 places a statue of a visionary civil rights leader, tireless salmon advocate, and deeply decent human being in National Statuary Hall. The people of the State of Washington and this nation benefited greatly from his life and work. The Puget Sound Partnership is humbly grateful for the time he gave us, the example he set, and the vision he left to us. We have far to go to achieve that vision, but we will not give up.”

Puget Sound Partnership