Billy Frank Jr. was the Northwest’s Nelson Mandela
Billy Frank, Jr. invited his oppressors to help find common ground. Credit: Credit: Michael Harris/Washington State Secretary of State's office
I have long thought that one of the greatest persons of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for over 25 years by the leaders of South Africa for doing nothing but advocating for the rights of his people. When he was finally released many expected the worst. Surely this man would be embittered and insist on retribution even if it meant civil war.
Instead he reached out to his oppressors and he encouraged to them join him in his search for common ground. His success was largely a result of the “content of his character”. If a man who had suffered the indignities of Mandela could seek peace by joining hands with his former enemies, how could any one else refuse. Mandela literally shamed everyone into a peaceful resolution of an almost guaranteed bloodbath.
With the passing of Billy Frank we have lost a figure that represents the spirit of Nelson Mandela in the Pacific Northwest. Billy asserted the tribal treaty rights to harvest salmon before such rights were recognized by the Courts. He suffered greatly for the assertion of those rights. He was arrested over 50 times in their defense until finally he was vindicated by the Federal Courts. His struggle vindicated his assertion of the collective rights and responsibilities of all signatories to the 19th century treaties and made clear to all of us how shabbily he had been treated.
Billy, like Mandela, could have been angry and bitter over his experience and refused to cooperate with those who made him suffer for what was rightfully his. Like Mandela, Billy refused to do that. Intead, he helped to create the Nisqually River Council in the watershed where he and his fellow tribal members live. Through the council he helped pull all of the interests in the Nisqually together and they adopted a plan for the river’s restoration. This set all the people who lived there on a path for recovery that makes the Nisqually a model for how to solve western water problems.
The Nisqually at the National Wildlife refuge. Credit: Harvey Barrison
In addition to Billy’s tribe there were farmers, small landowners, small towns, Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, the U.S. Park Service, the Army at Fort Lewis and Air Force at McChord Air Base and a myriad of other interests. Billy played a central role in developing a collaborative attitude that allowed all to finally work together.
What the people of the Nisqually have accomplished, I believe, will eventually be followed by all contentious watersheds in the Western part of the United States. All those river basins need is a leader like Billy Frank. Billy eventually became a national figure spearheading the fight for tribal rights throughout the country. He showed the way and shamed the rest of us into following.
His great spirit, his humor, his unshakable belief in the goodness of his fellow man and his quiet wisdom will be forever missed. But it was our good fortune to have had all that with us, here in Puget Sound, for 83 years.
Godspeed, Billy. You gave your all.