What to make of a defiant man who was arrested more than 50 times during his younger years and accused by our state of a crime that he fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court on the principle that it was, in fact, no crime at all? Who battled for much of his life, was cursed at by state and federal officials, and reveled in being a living example of civil disobedience — all to make the larger point that cooperation was the key to our survival?
“We’re all in the same canoe,” Billy Frank Jr. liked to say. “And we have got to learn to paddle together.”
Frank was the cantankerous Nisqually Indian leader whose successful crusade for tribal fishing rights made him one of the most legendary figures in Washington state history. He was quite comfortable with his many contradictions. And though he died three years ago, at the age of 83, I have been thinking of him a lot this year as a living example of how one might navigate the troubled currents of our civic life, both local and national.
To many in the Pacific Northwest, of course, this has been something of an annus horribilis, during which we have felt frustratingly powerless. We’ve been unable, for example, to stop the smoke of forest fires both distant and near from choking our region in ugly acrid haze this summer, or mitigate the effects in any way until the winds themselves simply decided it was time to blow in a different direction. We were caught unawares a few weeks later, when a rupture in giant nets at a Skagit County fish pen abruptly dumped tens of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon into our waterways, a bizarre yet deadly serious threat to the biological integrity and health of our iconic wild salmon stocks.
And this was just the local misfortune, to say nothing of a national dialogue that at times seemed so profoundly, surreally and dismayingly off course. How could sickening images from Charlottesville, Virginia, of torches and swastikas and aggrieved young men chanting, “Jew will not replace us,” prompt such an equivocal response from the elected leader of our country?
To many in the Pacific Northwest, of course, this has been something of an annus horribilis, during which we have felt frustratingly powerless.
Were he alive today, Billy Frank Jr. would have some choice, surely profane words to say about all of this. And while he did say we’re all in the same canoe, I think he would have had no hesitation in dumping overboard anyone trying to gash a hole in the side of the vessel. Still, the biggest battle Frank ever waged, the one that made him an iconic civil rights leader, was actually for the right to cooperate. American Indians, he argued, had no say over a right guaranteed to them by treaty, so he fought for their voice.
Frank first was arrested in December 1945 at the age of 14 for the crime of fishing. He kept fishing in his beloved Nisqually River and in other time-honored spots and suffered through arrests and repeated confiscation of his gear. All the while he contended that treaties dating to the 19th century clearly gave Native American tribes the right to fish and hunt in all of their “usual and accustomed places,” while state officials contended he and his fellow American Indians were breaking the law.
Getting arrested, Frank explained to the media, was a way of telling his story. That tale was amplified when famous people like Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory attended his “fish-ins” — and got arrested with him. It was a story that found its way into federal court. In 1974, the Nisqually and nearly two dozen other tribes in Washington state won a stunning victory when U.S. District Court Judge George Hugo Boldt ruled squarely in their favor. The tribes won the right they had been seeking all along: To co-manage salmon stocks with the state. In other words, they fought so that they could cooperate. (The principle was extended far beyond our state when the Supreme Court later upheld the Boldt Decision).
For more than 30 years after his legal victory, Frank served as chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. In this role, he amply demonstrated his ability to cooperate; the whole point was to work with government agencies for healthy rivers and sustainable harvests. In his later years he actually was recognized far more for his conciliation skills than for any verbal bellicosity. “A man unsuited to vengeance,” as Seattle author Timothy Egan once called him, Frank was a key force in getting timber companies, environmental groups, and commercial fishing interests together to forge two landmark agreements: the Timber Fish Wildlife Agreement in 1987 and its successor, the Forests & Fish Law of 1999.
Were he present in these troubled times, Billy Frank Jr. would be looking for ways to bring together people of opposing views. He would look approvingly on some recent small but promising examples of divides that have been bridged in our state. These include rural-urban coalitions for sustainable farming and logging, such as the unlikely alliance among timber interests, tribes, and green-architecture proponents who are vigorously promoting the use of cross laminated timber. The potentially revolutionary building product can be made from thin, burned, or scrap trees once considered virtually useless as a construction material. CLT, as the product is known, is currently in wider use in Europe than in the U.S., but adoption here could provide thousands of jobs in economically depressed areas that have been passed over by the tech-fueled boom in Seattle.
Ultimately, Frank somehow leveraged a gutsy willingness to be labeled a public scourge into a position of universal respect.
“It will be good for people in rural Washington and it will be good for the people in our cities where (most of) this beautiful material is destined,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said of the CLT initiative at Forterra’s annual breakfast earlier this year. “When this succeeds, our whole Pacific Northwest wins.”
The year after Frank died, President Obama signed into law the aptly named Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act, which renamed the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Frank’s honor. It also added a national memorial commemorating the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. This agreement between the U.S. government and leaders of the Nisqually, Puyallup, and other tribes was one of the central treaties that Frank had cited whenever some game warden or sheriff’s deputy called his fishing a crime.
Ultimately, Frank somehow leveraged a gutsy willingness to be labeled a public scourge into a position of universal respect. That was no easy feat but one worthy of study and perhaps emulation in this era, during which resistance is a buzzword on everyone’s lips.