Government officials, family and community members reflect on Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy as he is memorialized
A statue of Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually tribal activist and environmental leader, will be placed in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
On April 14, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1372 to replace a Marcus Whitman statue with the late Billy Frank Jr. who died in 2014. His statue will be the eighth Native American figure added to the Capitol’s collection, and the first Native American figure represented who has lived during the 21st century.
Billy Frank Jr. was a prominent Native American leader for the Coast Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest who in the 1960s and 70s helped lead a series of civil disobediences, or fish-in protests, to protect indigenous populations rights to fish and co-manage natural resources with the federal government.
Billy Frank Jr. was arrested more than 50 times for exercising his right to fish and protecting tribal treaty rights. He was first arrested at the age of 14 in 1945.
His civil disobedience led to the Boldt Decision in the monumental supreme court case, United States v. Washington. This decision protected Native American fishing rights and allocated 50% of the available fish supply to tribes.
The bill was first introduced in January, by Debra Lekanoff, the only Native American legislative representative in Washington state.
At first, Lekanoff said she was hesitant to propose this bill during the COVID-19 pandemic which has incited an immense amount of political division and economic distress. But after thinking about Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy and the way he impacted tribal relations in the state, she decided it would be a valuable step in bringing her communities together.
“I believe Billy has the ability to heal our state,” she said.
Lekanoff said that Billy Frank Jr. was a natural born leader, and his roots are embedded in the riverbanks of Nisqually.
“He never forgot where he came from,” she said.
Now, she said the whole nation knows him.
“We look to those who walk on the lands where our people are buried, where our culture comes from, where our bloodlines come from and where our names come from,” Lekanoff said.
For Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck, memorializing Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy is personal.
“He had a warmth and a personal manner that drew you to him and made you love him,” Heck said.
Willie Frank III, council member for the Nisqually tribe and Billy Frank Jr.’s son, said his father’s actions which lead to the Boldt decision are the reason why the co-management of natural resources between tribes and the state government exists today.
“He was the voice of reasoning,” Willie Frank III said.
Growing up, Willie Frank III said his father firmly instilled in him an understanding of what conservation means for his people.
“Folks don’t understand the importance of salmon to our culture and our way of life,” Willie Frank III said. “This isn’t a dollar sign for us.”
This is not the first time that Billy Frank Jr. has been memorialized. In 2015, the road in Bellingham formerly known as Indian Street was changed to Billy Frank Jr. Street by the city council.
“It’s painful to think of the former name,” said Roxanne Murphy, a former Bellingham city council member who played an instrumental role in renaming the road.
Murphy, a member of the Nooksack tribe, described Billy Frank Jr. and others who played a role in advocating for Native fishing rights as her superheros. She met Billy Frank Jr. in 2012 while working as an assistant for her tribe’s general manager.
“He grabbed my shoulders and was like, ‘I really want you to keep up the good work because we have to keep fighting for these rights,’” Murphy said. “Those are words that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
When Murphy heard that Billy Frank Jr.’s statue would be memorialized at the Capitol, she said she was emotional.
“I cried because this is such a significant point in history,” she said.
In the future, she said that she hopes Billy Frank Jr.’s statue will inspire tribal youth to continue his legacy by seeing their heritage recognized on a national scale.
In a time of uncertainty, Billy Frank Jr.’s statue is an emblem of hope to hold onto for both the Coast Salish peoples and the community at large.
“Times are really hard right now, so we need those symbols of hope,” Murphy said.
Cameron Baird is a second-year visual journalism student and a city news reporter for The Front. His work primarily focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic in Whatcom County. When he’s not reporting, he enjoys going on hikes, camping and listening to music. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.