Billy Frank’s activism began four decades before the court decision that would validate tribal rights to salmon and other fish, which comprise a critical component of traditional Northwest Indian culture. Frank, who grew up in a Nisqually tribal fishing family near Olympia, was only 14 years old in 1945, when he was first arrested for salmon fishing. Frank’s activism would continue for almost seven decades — ceasing only with his death Monday at age 83.
While 19th-century treaties had granted tribes their “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds in return for ceding land, 20th-century state policy was not so accommodating. The state restricted fishing in response to development practices that sharply reduced fish runs, even as commercial and sport fishermen competed with tribes for the diminishing supplies.
Thus began a series of “fish-ins,” which led to Frank being arrested more than 50 times over the decades. The protests at times turned violent in clashes with state officials and with nontribal fishermen, and the conflicts drew national attention. Almost a decade before Marlon Brando refused to accept his Oscar because of Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans, the actor was arrested for joining a fishing protest on the Puyallup River in 1964.
While Frank was dogged in his activism, he was diplomatic in his dealings with political leaders outside the tribe, including American presidents going back to Jimmy Carter. Eventually, his skirmishes on the rivers would lead to a landmark legal victory in the courts. In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled that treaties allotted to 20 coastal and Western Washington tribes the right to half of the fish harvest in those areas, a decision that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1979.
The court victories laid the groundwork for increased tribal involvement in managing Northwest fisheries and led to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, of which Frank served as chairman. After the court victories, Frank continued his fishing fight on different fronts. He argued for protection of natural resources, especially salmon, and recently joined other tribal members in pushing for more stringent water quality standards in Washington state.
Frank’s activism and the court decisions remain controversial today, but there is no doubt that they changed the Northwest’s physical and political landscape. River-blocking dams are coming down, and other dams have undergone significant mitigation efforts to accommodate migrating fish. In discussions about Northwest water policy, fish habitat gets billing along with irrigation needs and power generation. Frank’s success led to activism in other fronts, such as legal protections, education and free-speech rights for tribes and tribal members.
As news spread Monday of Frank’s death, politicians from across party lines and from across the state acknowledged his influence, from Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to Republican state Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville. The Washington Secretary of State’s Office chronicled Frank’s life as part of its Legacy Project with the book, “Where the Salmon Run” by Trevor Heffernan. Classrooms around the state and country are using the book.
The accolades from the government that once arrested him point to Billy Frank’s decades-long role in changing the debate in Washington state and across the country.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.