Last month, Billy Frank Jr. passed away. He was 83.
Billy was a leader, a tireless advocate, a warrior, and a legend. His passion and energy will be missed by many, not the least of which the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission — a group he was chairman of for more than 30 years — as well as Tribal leaders and fishermen across Washington state.
Billy was a force whose passing deserves all of the attention it has received. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to track down some of these tributes, especially if you have only a passing familiarity with Billy’s struggles to help secure and maintain fishing treaty rights for Tribes in this state.
A Nisqually Tribe member, Frank was known specifically for his grassroots campaign in defense of fishing rights on the Tribe’s Nisqually River north of Olympia in the 1960s and 1970s. Frank was arrested more than 50 times in the Fish Wars of that time.
While there’s little I can say about Billy that hasn’t already been written, I do want to reflect a bit on the things that I’ve learned from Billy’s work.
nStand up for what you believe in … even when no one else will.
nSpeaking your mind — especially if your opinion is unpopular — is a hard thing to do. The minute you open your mouth, you open yourself up for ridicule and arguments, but no one has ever accomplished anything or affected positive change by sitting back and accepting the status quo.
Of course, there’s a downside to this: standing up means people will try to knock you down and, sometimes, they will. Like the old saying goes though, it’s better to have tried and failed then to have never tried at all.
nTreat people with respect, even if you’re on opposite sides.
If you put yourself and what you believe out into the open, inevitably, you’re going to run into someone who doesn’t agree with you. I’ve been in countless meetings where this has happened. For example, our Tribe’s protection of Port Gamble Bay has come under fire on more than one occasion. Not because these opponents necessarily want to harm the bay, but because their perspective is different or they put other interests above environmental concerns.
nThe thing I have found to remember is that disagreement doesn’t invalidate your opinion. You have to have the courage of your own convictions, but understand that someone who thinks otherwise isn’t necessarily your enemy.
It’s the big and small things that can make your community a better place.
The “fish-ins” could have been dismissed as simple acts of defiance, but, today, more than 40 years later, it’s clear how they changed the world.
There are examples like this throughout history. You probably have a few in your own experiences — an act of kindness or consideration that changed the course of your day or life. Sometimes seemingly small steps and actions can make all the difference.
Speaking of little things that can make a big difference: I want to invite you to participate in the clean up of Point Julia on June 14. Beginning at 9 a.m., our Natural Resources Department will be leading a volunteer effort on what is the kick-off of the Port Gamble Bay Debris Removal Project. Not only will your involvement help to make Point Julia a safer place, but it will also impact the success of the ultimate goal of protecting Port Gamble Bay for the future of our community.
In closing, Billy Frank Jr. taught me a lot about the importance of standing up for what’s right and important. He fought for Washington’s tribes and helped many of us find a voice. In respect to his sacrifices, we must never lose it.
— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Background on U.S. vs. Washington
From the North Kitsap Herald
In 1970, the U.S. sued the State of Washington on behalf of the Treaty Tribes, alleging the state was preventing Tribes from exercising the fishing rights guaranteed them under treaties signed with the U.S. On Feb. 12, 1974, U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt ruled in favor of the Treaty Tribes.
An article in the treaties states, “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” Boldt interpreted “in common with” to mean an equal share, 50 percent of the available salmon harvest.
But Boldt’s ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, did more than affirm Indian fishing rights. It upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. It established Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the salmon fishery. And it spawned other actions designed to protect salmon, because — as Frank stated in the ensuing years — if there is no salmon fishery, then the treaty is violated.
Among those subsequent actions:
nIn 1985, Canada and the United States signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty; through the Pacific Salmon Commission, both countries cooperate in the management, research and enhancement of Pacific salmon stocks.
nIn 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that indigenous treaty signers had also reserved the right to harvest shellfish from any beds not “staked or cultivated by citizens,” meaning all public and private tidelands are subject to treaty harvest. “A treaty is not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them,” Rafeedie wrote in his decision.
nIn 1999, the state Legislature adopted the Forests & Fish Law, directing the state’s Forest Practices Board to adopt measures to protect Washington’s native fish and aquatic species and ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. The law affects 60,000 miles of streams flowing through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.
nIn 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that the state must remove hundreds of state highway culverts that block fish passage over the next 17 years. The State of Washington is appealing the decision.