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Billy Frank Jr.: Tribes Must Try To Bring The Salmon Back

EarthFix Photo/Katie Campbell

Editor's note, 5/5/2014: Billy Frank Jr., who led the "Fish Wars" of the 1960s and '70s, has died. He was 83. Below is an interview with Frank, conducted in March by KUOW's Steve Scher and Arwen Nicks. We also featured Frank in a series on tribal fishing.

Billy Frank Jr. helped secure Indian fishing rights through protest and legal action in the 1960s and '70s. The 83-year-old Nisqually tribe member has been arrested about 50 times over the years; the first time was in 1945 when he was 14, for fishing.

The dispute stemmed from Native Americans who wished to fish on their traditional tribal grounds, a right established in treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s. However, when these rights were exercised, state games officials arrested fishermen and confiscated their catch and equipment.

In protest, tribal members hosted fish-ins. In 1968, Frank was once again arrested and put in jail. At the time he was working on a power line in Shelton, Wash. The response he got from his boss was surprising.

“Tuesday or Wednesday I got out of jail, the general foreman had my pictures hanging up – he was just so proud of me!” Frank said with a laugh as he described the foreman’s reaction. “'You went to jail for your right' – that’s how the union created us. They supported what we were doing.”

After the historic Boldt Decision in 1974, which acknowledged Native American rights to fish and harvest shellfish in their “usual and accustomed grounds,” Frank turned to protecting salmon and the environment. He has served as the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years.

“When I was a young kid and drifting on the Nisqually River, I always wondered who is going to take care of us? I look over here at the sportsmen and the game department – they take care of them,” Frank said. “But I look at us Indians and nobody takes care of us, no infrastructure or anything. Well, today we have an infrastructure with the Northwest Indians Fishing Commission and all of our tribes.”

To the tribes, salmon is more than sustenance or a livelihood. “Salmon is in our blood. That’s how it is: It’s there, and we want to keep it there,” Frank said.

Today, salmon are challenged by pollution, the debate over hatchery and wild fish, and even managing the sea lion population. But Frank said the commission – which includes a staff of biologists, geneticists and fisheries managers – has the best science there to combat the dwindling population.

“We’re a hundred years too late, but then that’s what we were dealt and so we’re going to use that to the fullest and try to bring the salmon back,” Frank said.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.