Remembering a legend: Billy Frank, Jr.

A kinship with the natural world and his own heritage was imprinted on his character - and ours.
Billy Frank, Jr.

Billy Frank, Jr.

“I don’t believe in magic,” Billy once said. “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 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. Those who learn to listen to the world that sustains them can hear the message brought forth by the salmon.”  

So said Billy Frank, Jr., the legendary Tribal elder, moral lodestar and unflinching advocate of the national tribal sovereignty movement, an Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize winner, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, “uncle” to thousands and a founding Leadership Council member at the Puget Sound Partnership. Billy passed away on Monday at the age of 83. He was on that day, as most days, on his way to a meeting about fish and tribal treaty rights.   

For many, it can take a lifetime to know what you mean and to convey it unambiguously, to have your first essential audience, your people, and understand the meaning of the lesson — the life lesson. Not so for Billy. His demonstrable kinship with the natural world is a phenomenon he did not work at. It is something that was imprinted on his character “prehistorically”— long before the battles at Frank’s Landing or the triumph of the Boldt decision or the wonders of bringing children into this world. It is this hereditary kinship with nature and his ancient heritage that kept him vigilantly at this work until Monday, May 5.

Sometimes a person and his story, his history, can suffice for a family or a generation or an entire people or, emblematically, for a way of life, a struggle. For the tribal people of the State of Washington and indeed nationally, Billy’s is the culmination of an era in this specific place on earth, the Salish Sea, specifically Frank’s Landing on the banks of the Nisqually River, and a time in our State’s history — its “aggressive adolescence,” to paraphrase Tim Egan — when native peoples’ access to their treaty-given rights were circumscribed by a lack of understanding, clashing cultures and virulent racism.

What was it in Billy’s cultural and inherited DNA passed to him from his father, Willie Frank Sr., and generations of tribal elders before him that created this deeply decent partner, both a proud bearer of Indian tradition and a willing translator across cultures? Billy was a fearless advocate for what was good for his people’s interest and the planet’s interest, which in the end he argued was good for the greater public’s interest, out seven generations. Working unsentimentally but with great humanity and humility, and without ranker, Billy Frank was the rare leader — more quiet than shrill, more discrete than brash, more serious than trivial, but relentless — who worked at the intersection of one of the nation’s seminal civil rights battles and beyond as warrior, peacemaker, consensus builder and finally visionary.  

Billy was a long-term and optimistic thinker and strategist. He was the personification of what it means to be courageous. Not brave. Bravery is temporary; it’s a rising to an occasion not necessarily of one’s own making. It is a kind of daring, but not the enduring kind. Courage, on the other hand, is a disposition, a quality of character. It endures. Central to the word courage is of course “coeur,” meaning heart. Heart was Billy’s defining feature. He knew no stranger; was alien to no injustice.

Last Thursday, at the Salish Sea Tribal dinner, Billy assured us that he would be here for at least another decade — he had so much work to do. He mentioned that his father lived to be 104 and his mother to 96 and that he hoped to split the difference. He was on fire, naming names, calling us all to the cause, to come together. He was as powerful as anyone in that room had ever heard him be. After his talk, he was blanketed in thanks. 

At the end of the dancing, a shaman from Greenland, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, chanted a hair-raisingly powerful and hauntingly beautiful prayer. And then, unsuspectedly, the healer briskly descended the stage stairs as the assemblage was setting to leave and singled out Billy, who stood up from the elders’ table. Holding two wind drums, amplifying his immense tenor sound, he sang and chanted an unearthly closing prayer, practically cupping Billy’s head in the drums. The room froze. Time froze. It blasted Billy. It was clearly a benediction.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 7, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

A unique and wonderful American. He'll be missed.

Djinn

Posted Thu, May 8, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Had a good chat with him last week at the Salish Sea Conference. Still full of piss and vinegar when it comes to environmental and salmon issues - but a kind soul. He was unique and will be sorely missed. I like this picture of him back in the day----

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/today/2014/05/billy-frank-jr-nisqually-elder-who-fought-for-treaty-rights-dies/

Treker

Posted Thu, May 8, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Martha, thank you for your beautiful elegy. Billy deserves the best words we can send him away with and you have succeeded.

Posted Thu, May 8, 9:22 a.m. Inappropriate

He was a simple man, unpretentious. He was, compared to bombastic politicians, a quiet man.

He kept his eye on the ball. He could relate his goals to a healthier Salish Sea for all of us.

He was a great man. A giant.

It was an honor to have known Billy.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Thu, May 8, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

It is not possible to overstate the importance of Billy Frank Jr. He likely did more than anyone one else to place the Native American treaty rights cause in its proper moral context and assure that this essential morality continue to inform the tedious and interminable process of implementing the Boldt decision. The early champions of the Treaty fishing rights cause were brave and resourceful, but many of them did not embody the highest ideals of the Native tradition. The great hero of Indian resistance to State oppression, Bob Satiacum, was a junkyard dog. Through endless hard work and the simple power of his being Billy Frank elevated an entire generation of his contemporaries and transformed bitter conflict into peaceful cooperation.

woofer

Posted Fri, May 9, 7:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes Billy had a great presence. He called BS when he saw it (a lot in the endless meetings). He spelled it out so no one could pretend it wasn't true.

louploup

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