By Jacqueline Brennan
To arresting officers:
“Leave me alone. I fish here! I live here!”
Billy Frank, Jr., 14 years old, 1945
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, 2015
February 2016: In Olympia, Washington, a 73-year-old man rises at the end of his strict 9 am-1 pm sleep cycle to take a call on a Wednesday afternoon. His baritone voice, croaky at first, turns to meditative cadence after a few bars of coughs and throat-clearing. This is Hank Adams, witness to a sea change in Native American law, with a preternatural memory for exact dates…
Hank: A judge dismissed charges [against Nisqually fishermen] on authority of an injunction in a 1937 tribal fishing case on the Puyallup River…The injunction more or less laid there for years until the end of World War II, when at 14 years of age, Billy was arrested [for fishing] on the Nisqually River for the first time in 1945.
Adams, born to Assiniboine and Sioux parents in Montana, moved to Washington when he was 18 months old – around the time of Billy Frank, Jr.’s first of 50+ arrests. By age 21, Adams joined the Nisqually River community of Frank’s Landing, where Billy Frank’s family lived and fished.
Hank: In January 1962, the police of the state of Washington, and the department of fish and game made their first assaults on Frank’s Landing. While I was living in Olympia, I planned schedules for Frank’s Landing work in January 1964 – basically selecting areas to stage mass protests.
Frank’s Landing’s assertion of fishing rights under a mid-19th century treaty found its way to Washington’s Western District Court. Already leery about their prospects, the tribes had misgivings in 1970 when conservative George Hugo Boldt was appointed to preside over their case against the state. But the thoroughly conscientious approach of the bow-tie clad judge with a penchant for plaid was instrumental to their landmark success. Alvin Ziontz, who represented the Lummi Tribe in U.S. v. Washington, recalls the proceedings in September 1973 when Billy stood witness before Boldt:
Alvin: Billy described changes in his lifetime and his father’s – tracing the impact of humans on fish runs: “There is so many different things on the river now, like the dams, the lowering of the water, the timber…You would be thinking of 50 or 100 years from now. You don’t know the whole change of everything, what it would be in this fishery resource.”
Judge Boldt’s closing remarks (December 1973):
Judge Boldt: I seriously believe this kind of case should have been brought fifty years ago, so that these issues might have been resolved long ago. Much damage, both physical and spiritual, has been caused to the Indian and non-Indian people of this area for want of adjudication of these issues in the way our Constitution provides, that is, in a court and not by demonstrations, violence, and the like. It is this lack of adjudication that has largely produced deep bitterness on both sides…I am hopeful that all will come together as citizens in common.
Judge Boldt released his 170-page decision in February 1974. In 1975, Adams became chairman of the American Indian Policy Review Commission task force. He periodically brought Billy to Washington, DC to work on follow-up to the Boldt decision.
Hank: He was meeting everyone – and of course, everyone was falling in love with him immediately…just by his sheer ability to disarm on the first impression. That was part of Billy’s force of personality, and that made you want to remain his friend.
Among those introductions was Patricia Zell. Zell, a Navajo/Arapahoe whose manner of speaking is as emotive as it is precise, served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the immediate aftermath of the Boldt decision, and later on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Today, she is a practicing Indian law attorney and serves as vice-chair of the board of trustees for Smithsonian’s Washington, DC chapter of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Patricia: Part of what drew people to him was that his integrity was unquestionable. He was not committed to any person but to the fish…
Billy imbued into others – regardless of their background and their sensibility with regard to these issues – a sense of responsibility to take care of the fish – to take care of the environment…Billy never started from the proposition that [non-Natives] were evil people. He started at the proposition that they had something in common. He could never accept the proposition that people couldn’t learn and change once they understood the responsibility of sustaining the environment.
Yet another friend Billy met through Hank Adams was Suzan Harjo, who was then a liaison to Indian affairs for the Carter administration. Harjo, the daughter of Cheyenne and Muscogee parents, is a senior writer and commentator at Indian Country Today Media Network. For her lifetime of activism, Harjo was honored by President Obama in 2014 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian achievement. In 2015, President Obama honored Billy with the same award, posthumously.
Suzan: Billy should have gotten the medal first in the Indian order of things.
Every Indian nation has their hero, and often they’re the ones that sustained resistance…Heroes are different in that they back the way they feel by putting their own blood on the line. Few people do that, and that’s why they’re remembered.
Billy’s transition from an outlaw in his own state to a renowned public figure came not by virtue of any change in his tactics, but rather by way of consistency. In 1981, Billy was appointed chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission – the regulatory body created under the Boldt decision. He held that post until his death in 2014.
Billy Frank, Jr.: I don‘t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They‘re our measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That‘s what I believe in.
We’re the advocates for the salmon, the animals, the birds, the water. We’re the advocates for the food chain. We’re an advocate for all our society.
Tell them about our life. Put the story of our lives, and how we live with the land, and how they’re our neighbors. And how you have to respect your neighbors and work with your neighbors. So what you do is, you do what you can in your lifetime. Then that’ll go on to another lifetime. Then another lifetime. Then another…
In Boulder, Colorado, a leading Indian and public land law expert and distinguished professor pauses his animated delivery to a phone interviewer to jokingly berate a student entering his office. The professor is Charles Wilkinson.
Charles: I can’t be interrupted because I’m giving an interview about goddamn Billy Frank! [Aside:] I tell my students, ‘Billy’s gone now, but he never really left.’
Wilkinson first met Billy in 1974 while litigating the Boldt decision as a practicing attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. Forty years later, he was a pallbearer at Billy’s funeral. Today, Wilkinson is the Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado.
Charles: There are different kinds of geniuses. There are philosophers. There are people who are geniuses with athletics. And there are people who can be geniuses in understanding how societies work, and what they need, and that’s Billy.
I said at his funeral that I thought he belonged in the company of Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, Gandhi, and historic greats.
I’ll believe that to my death.
Jacqueline Brennan is the associate for social media and web at Independent Sector.