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Washington tribal rights leader dies at 83

One of the major Fish War protest leaders of the 60's and 70's, Billy Frank Jr., passed away on May 5.


Courtesy of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Billy Frank Jr. (left) speaking at a 2009 meeting to the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk in Kamilche, Washington.

Billy Frank Jr., a leader in one of the biggest civil rights battles in Pacific Northwest history, died in his home on May 5 at the age of 83.

A member of the Nisqually Native American tribe, Frank fought for tribal rights for most of his life.

In 1945, when he was only 14, he was arrested for the first time for fishing with a net.

After he was released he would continue fishing in violation of Washington state law, largely in protest over tribal fishing rights, which were guaranteed to Native American tribes by the treaties which pushed them onto their current reservations.

Throughout his lifetime Frank would be jailed more than 50 times and face physical violence not only against himself, but his friends and family, as a result of his civil disobedience.

Frank and other Native Americans held protests in the 1960s and '70s to reclaim their rightful share of the natural resources of the Puget Sound.

Frank's Landing, a piece of land on the Nisqually reservation that the Frank family owned, would become a popular spot for Native Americans to host "fish ins" as demonstrations against state authorities.

The widespread, largely non-violent, protests in the Pacific Northwest came to be known as the Fish Wars.

The decades-long battle with the state government came to a head when the U.S. Attorney sued the state of Washington for failure to keep their treaty promises. That case led to the 1974 Boldt decision, which affirmed the tribes' rights to continue fishing the region's salmon and establish that treaty agreements took precedence over state law.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed this decision in 1979.

"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," wrote President Obama in a statement. "Billy never stopped fighting to make sure future generations would be able to enjoy the outdoors as he did."

Governor Jay Inslee commented that a "true legend" had passed.

"Billy was a champion of tribal rights, of the salmon, and the environment. He did that even when it meant putting himself in physical danger or facing jail," said Inslee in a statement.

Frank never stopped fighting for salmon, the environment and tribal rights, even after the Fish Wars were done. He was scheduled to go to a meeting about fish and tribal treaty rights on the day he died.

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy praised his ability to bring together leaders from all sectors to protect natural resources.

Because of Frank, "EPA's own tribal efforts were strongly influenced in the early 1990s as we created an office to more directly address tribal issues across the country," she wrote in a statement.

Frank was the chairman for the Northwest Fisheries Commission for most of the last 30 years. He also helped the Nisqually tribe's efforts to restore the Nisqually River Delta.

Recently, Frank had pushed for a bill that allowed tribal members to remove felonies still on their records because of the Fish Wars. That bill was passed in the state legislature earlier this year.

His impact was felt and will be missed among local wildlife organizations.

"He was my mentor for 30 years, and it was from him that I learned to be respectful of all people. Those warm embraces of his were genuine, and they could make all the difference in the world," said David Troutt, the Nisqually Tribe Natural Resources director.

Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife director Phil Anderson said Frank was "one of the greatest men I have ever known."

"Billy was widely recognized as a great leader and he took on that role with grace and honor. The mere presence of him changed the atmosphere in the room," he said. "No one ever questioned his role as a leader. No one ever questioned his passion for natural resources. And no one ever questioned his commitment to Indian people."

Frank's monthly editorial column, "Being Frank," appeared in the North County Outlook and other community newspapers.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission is hosting a memorial page for Frank at


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