An environmental warrior and civil rights leader | In Our Opinion

You may not be Native American, you may not live on or near a reservation, and you may not have read the Treaty of Point No Point or the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855.

You are still the beneficiary of Billy Frank Jr.’s lifetime of work.

Frank, who passed away on May 5 at the age of 83, was the longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He spent much of his life fighting for Native American fishing rights and, then, working to make the sea, shorelines, streams, marshes and forests healthier for salmon — and, in turn, us.

Frank was just a kid when he was first arrested for fishing on the Nisqually River — his river and the river of his ancestors. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps, then returned home to what would become ground zero in the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ’70s.

State Fish and Game officers continuously — and sometimes brutally — arrested Native Americans for fishing in their historical territories without state licenses, despite a treaty that guaranteed they could do so and despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution recognizes treaties as “the supreme law of the land.”

Salmon runs throughout the region had plummeted, but the state didn’t want to look at the commercial fishing licenses it gave to non-Indians for $15 a year with no daily catch limits. It didn’t want to look at habitat that had been damaged by deforestation, agricultural runoff, tainted stormwater runoff, and dams and culverts that blocked fish passage. It wanted to blame 1 percent of the population, the people who had fished here forever, those whose relationship with salmon was cultural and spiritual as well as vital to their health.

Frank was arrested at least 50 times by the time the U.S. sued the State of Washington in 1970. An article in treaties between the U.S. and its First Peoples states, “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” On Feb. 12, 1974, U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt interpreted “in common with” to mean an equal share, 50 percent of the available salmon harvest.

Boldt’s ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, did more than affirm Indian fishing rights. It upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. It established Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the salmon fishery. It spawned other actions designed to improve salmon habitat and restore runs: The Pacific Salmon Commission, the Forests & Fish Law, a court order that fish-blocking culverts be removed by 2017. And, as Frank often said, we all — Native Americans and the descendants of immigrants — benefit from healthy fish and a healthy environment.

When he passed away, he was still working to get the state to lower the pollution levels allowed businesses, because those pollution levels determine the recommended amount of seafood we — Natives and non-Natives — should eat.

Local, county and state agencies often have rules that conflict with federal recovery goals for salmon habitat, and Frank was working to get the U.S. government to take a direct role in the enforcement of salmon habitat protection laws. As a signatory to the treaty, the U.S. had a responsibility to do so, Frank said.

Through all of this, he was always kind, even to his adversaries.

Frank was a vigorous defender of Native rights under the treaty, but he believed that non-Natives benefitted from the treaty too.

“People forget that non-Indians in western Washington have treaty rights, too,” he wrote in 2007. “Treaties opened the door to statehood. Without them, non-Indians would have no legal right to buy property, build homes or even operate businesses on the millions of acres Tribes ceded to the federal government. Treaty rights should never be taken for granted — by anyone.”

Billy Frank Jr. was a great civil rights leader and environmental warrior. Our world is more just because of his life.


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