Billy Frank Jr.: Champion of tribal rights dies at age 83

Ellen M. Banner / Seattle TimesBilly Frank Jr., pictured in 2007, was praised for his courage.
Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times
Billy Frank Jr., pictured in 2007, was praised for his courage.


Billy Frank Jr., the charismatic leader in the successful battle over fish, was praised by President Obama: “Thanks to his courage and determined effort, our resources are better protected, and more tribes are able to enjoy the rights preserved for them more than a century ago.”

By Craig Welch, Seattle Times

He was beaten and clubbed and tear-gassed and jailed, watched police slam friends in the back with brass knuckles and saw his teenage niece punched in the face by a game agent.

Billy Frank Jr.’s decades-long battle with authorities over tribal rights to catch fish — beginning with his arrest at 14 in 1945 for filling his net with steelhead and chum — propelled him to the forefront of one of the Northwest’s greatest civil-rights movements.

And when a federal judge in 1974 affirmed Indian treaty rights to half the region’s salmon, the angry young Nisqually fisherman who’d suffered so much violence at the hands of the state didn’t simply head back to the river.

Instead, Mr. Frank transformed himself into a charismatic statesman for tribal rights, traveling the country and the world and becoming one of the nation’s most influential Native Americans.

Billy Frank Jr. — smart and generous, befriended by senators, called upon by presidents and looked up to by a generation of young tribal leaders — died Monday at home. He was 83.

“He’ll stand with all the great Indian names of the past two centuries in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation,” said his longtime friend Hank Adams, who first met Mr. Frank at the height of the region’s salmon wars in the 1960s. “His is a name that will stand out in the future for all he’s given to Indians and the world.”

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

In the latter half of his life, Mr. Frank spent decades fighting 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.

He used a soft voice, strong handshake, hearty hugs and stories laced with profanity to disarm all he encountered, earning the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1992.

President Obama on Monday hailed Mr. Frank’s accomplishments.

“Today, thanks to his courage and determined effort, our resources are better protected, and more tribes are able to enjoy the rights preserved for them more than a century ago,” he said in a statement.

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.”

Mr. Frank was still such a force in Washington tribal and political circles, and his father had lived to be over 100, that many were caught off-guard by his death.

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

From the beginning, all Mr. Frank really wanted to do was catch fish, as his father had since before Washington became a state.

But despite 19th-century treaties promising Northwest tribes shared access to salmon and steelhead, as stocks plummeted early in the 20th century, state game agents began harassing and arresting tribal fishermen, including Mr. Frank’s father.

“To understand Billy, you really need to understand his dad,” said friend Tom Keefe, who first met Mr. Frank when Keefe was an aide to U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson in the late 1970s.

“Billy’s dad was really the guy who told Billy, ‘You stick with this river and if the state interferes, let them throw you in jail, but when you get back out, go back to fishing.’ ”

Mr. Frank did, again and again and again, even after a stint in the U.S. Marines in the 1950s and while working as a utility lineman in the 1960s.

By 1962, harassment was turning exceptionally violent, with state game agents staging night raids with billy clubs and tribal fishermen fighting back with rocks.

In 1964, Adams, an Assiniboine-Sioux, brought actor Marlon Brando to the Northwest to bring attention to native “fish-ins,” expecting him to fish illegally in solidarity with the tribes at Frank’s Landing near the mouth of the Nisqually. He got TV newsman Charles Kuralt to interview Mr. Frank’s father, but Brando ultimately was arrested on the banks of the Puyallup River. It would be another decade before 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.


Ann Yow / The Seattle Times, 1983Billy Frank Jr. is shown on the Nisqually River in 1983 when he was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a position he held for more than 30 years.
Ann Yow / The Seattle Times, 1983
Billy Frank Jr. is shown on the Nisqually River in 1983 when he was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a position he held for more than 30 years.


By 1974, Mr. Frank was angry and drinking heavily. His friends had been trying to convince him he could become a great leader — if he could get past the alcohol. He entered treatment the same year Boldt made his decision and stayed sober for 40 years. Friends said it helped set the course for the rest of his life.

When Keefe introduced Mr. Frank to Magnuson, the two hit it off right away. When Magnuson lost his re-election bid, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye took Mr. Frank under his wing. The two became very close. “Even if you didn’t agree with him, it was hard to come away not liking him,” Keefe said.

Steve Robinson, who worked side-by-side with Mr. Frank for 30 years, serving as his spokesman and writer starting in the mid-1980s, said Mr. Frank would never hesitate to do battle over what he believed. But he also had the instincts and skills of a diplomat.

“We would have visitors from Russia, Asia, South America, and he’d delight them all,” Robinson said. “He’d travel to Barrow or Kamchatka and kids would line up to see him. … He knew no strangers and hugged everybody.”

Kyle Taylor Lucas, a Tulalip Indian and former director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, recalled Mr. Frank’s deft diplomacy during the scores of oft-heated meetings to negotiate Washington’s new timber harvest rules during the mid-1980s.

But Lucas noted Mr. Frank’s contributions extended far beyond fishing rights.

“I think the tendency is to compartmentalize what Billy achieved in terms of fishing,” she said. “But in fact, what he did was help to cement treaty rights for all of Indian Country, that go to health and education and so many facets of what it means to be Native American.”

Added Lucas, “When I think of him, I think of a peaceful warrior. He was so humble, he was so kind and he treated everyone with respect and dignity.”

But Mr. Frank was still a fighter to the very end, said his son, who woke his father around 6 a.m. Monday to get ready for another meeting.

Mr. Frank showered and dressed, but when Willie went back to check in, his father was hunched over in bed. The cause of death was unknown.

“I asked him every day if he was feeling good, but he would never tell me if he wasn’t,” Willie said. “He wouldn’t want people to worry about him.”

Mr. Frank was predeceased by his first and second wives, Norma and Sue Crystal, and by his daughter, Maureen. He is survived by three sons, James “Sugar,” Tanu and Willie Frank.

Services are pending.

Seattle Times staff reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.