Frank Jr. (courtesy photo)
Billy Frank, Jr., a Nisqually Indian who died last year, is
one of two recipients being honored Tuesday with a Presidential
Medal of Freedom because they were resisters. The other is Minoru
Yasui (who you can read about here).
Frank is best known for his successful fight over Indian fishing
rights in Washington state in the 1960s and 70s. The right
to hunt, fish and gather shellfish were supposedly made permanent
in treaties with the tribes of western Washington in the 1850s.
But more than a century later, every time Indians fished off their
reservations, they would be arrested for violating state law.
Ultimately, the fishing rights matter went to the courts, and
in 1974, a federal district court decided in favor of the tribes
in U.S. v. Washingon in the Boldt decision. In a powerful ruling
Judge George Boldt stated that the Nisqually and other tribes would
become co-managers with the state of its fisheries. And they would
be allowed to take up to half the salmon in their traditional waters.
That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 and it
remains, 36 years later, the leading case on Native fishing rights.
When Frank died last year, William Yardley at The New York Times
The crime was fishing. The year was 1945. The boy was 14.
It was his first offense, but it would not be his last.
Billy Frank Jr. continued to fish, and he continued to get
arrested more than 50 times over the next decades. He was
not out to cause trouble. The goal was to preserve the traditions
he had been taught as a member of the Nisqually tribe, people
who had fished for millenniums in the waters that flow from the
foot of Mount Rainier into Puget Sound in Washington.
For Mr. Frank, who was 83 when he died on May 5 at his family's
longtime home on the Nisqually River, that arrest at 14 was the
beginning of his leading role in what would become known as the
"fish wars" in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s and '70s. [...]
"I wasn't a policy guy," Mr. Frank liked to say. "I was a
Barack Obama helps Peggen Frank to the lectern as she accepts
the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her father-in-law, the
late Nisqually tribal advocate Billy Frank Jr., on Tuesday.
(photo by Andrew Harnik)
State officials who did that arresting argued that Indians could
only fish on reservation land. This presented a special problem
for the Nisqually because two-thirds of their reservation had been
grabbed by the city of Tacoma in 1916 and given to the U.S. Army
so it could build Fort Lewis. Since several miles of the Nisqually
river was included in the land transfer, the tribe had no choice
but to seek other fishing areas.
This was especially galling because the treaties had been "negotiated"
by "chiefs" chosen by Isaac Stevens, the appointed governor of Washington
Territory. Given the nature of leadership among the tribes, this
was deeply resented by many tribal members and they refused to participate
in the talks. But by the summer of 1855, Stevens had managed to
get signatures on six treaties that pried millions of acres of land
from the tribes. Now decades later, what was agreed in those treaties
would be the tribes' rights in perpetuity was being flatly denied
by the state.
Although the federal courts had granted a petition in 1937 to
keep the state from violating treaty rights, there was no enforcement.
That's what pushed Frank to his first arrest eight years later.
For the next 30 years, he and scores of other Indians from various
Washington tribes were repeatedly arrested. They were harassed by
state authorities and Indian-hating Washington residents. They were
threatened, lost property and faced frequent violence from white
vigilantes. Legal fees ran into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Along with the Sioux-Assinoboine Hank Adamswho would later
be instrumental in bringing to a peaceful end the 1973 stand-off
at Wounded Knee, S.D., between government authorities and the American
Indian Movement Frank was one of a handful of Indian leaders
in Washington to adopt the "fish-in" as a key tactic for restoring
treaty fishing rights. This literally meant fishing in defiance
of state law. Hence, the arrests. This approach, beginning in 1964,
attracted considerable media attention. A few celebrities, most
notably Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, offered their support for
Although most of the fish-ins were nonviolent, over the next
few years, the stakes were raised. In the autumn of 1970, Indians
and some non-Indian allies had set up camps along the river, including
one with 200 people. Since armed game wardens frequently raided
the site, Indians posted their own armed guards around the campsite
for protection, a move that brought the full force of state law
against them while denying treaty law.
Finally, 100 government agents wearing riot gear attacked the
camp. Shots were fired, tear gas released and the authorities beat
Indians with clubs. In response, a firebomb was thrown and burned
a wooden bridge across the Nisqually. More than 50 Indians were
arrested and the camp was soon flattened with heavy machinery. The
televised scenes of brutality did not play well with the public
nationwide. It was at that point that the White House decided to
intervene with a lawsuit, which eventually led to the Boldt ruling.
That decision did not bring an immediate end to clashes. Right-wingers
in the John Birch Society and sport-fishing associations attacked
Boldt's decision and smeared him, even claiming that he had taken
a "squaw" for a mistress. Vigilantes, including the Ku Klux Klan,
vandalized Indian fishing gear and tried to sink their fishing boats
by ramming them. Ultimately, after the Supreme Court affirmed the
district court's ruling years later, things settled down.
At the Oneida tribe-owned news site Indian Country Today,
Peter D'Errico wrote
of Frank last week:
The president said the "fish-ins" that Billy organized "were
modeled after sit-ins of the civil rights movement." That statement
captures the ethos of the Native rights movement as a spiritual
and community effort to sustain human rights, but it misses the
difference between Indian sovereignty rights and civil rights.
Obama was closer to the mark when he stated, "Frank left in
his wake an Indian country strengthened by greater sovereignty
and a nation fortified by his example of service to one's community,
his humility, and his dedication to the principles of human rights
and environmental sustainability."
While Frank often made that joke about being the "getting-arrested
guy," he was far more than that. He was especially focused on restoring
the dwindling salmon runs and doing his utmost to maintain the cultural
identity of the Nisqually people.
In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Frank may
also be honored by having the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
named after him. Democratic Rep. Dennis Heck, a friend of Frank,
has signed up the entire Washington congressional delegation to
support the name change. The legislation authorizing that passed
the House Natural Resources Committee without dissent and now awaits
action on the House floor.
wildlife refuge to be renamed for activist Billy Frank Jr.