When Billy Frank Jr. was first arrested for fishing with a gillnet on the Nisqually River in 1945, he was just a 14-year-old boy. He must have wondered when the game wardens cuffed him and threw him into the back of a squad car what the future held. He could never have imagined someday cities would be naming streets after him.
On June 15, the city council of Bellingham, Washington, located 89 miles north of Seattle, unanimously voted to change the name of Indian Street to Billy Frank Jr. Street. Council member Terry Bornemann proposed the name change, as originally reported in the Bellingham Herald.
“The process started when an individual came to the council asking that we name a street after Martin Luther King Jr. I felt that the biggest civil rights issue in Whatcom County and Bellingham was First Nation rights,” Bornemann told ICTMN.
After initially working with members of the local Lummi and Nooksack nations, Bornemann came up with the idea of using the name of Billy Frank Jr., the Nisqually elder who fought his entire life for Native fishing rights and the ecological protection of waterways in Western Washington.
When Billy passed on in May 2014 at age 83, he was an icon of Native civil rights in Washington State and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He had won numerous prestigious awards, most notably the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award in 1990 and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1992.
In the early 1960s, however, he was an outlaw.
“It is next to impossible to say with certainty how many times Billy Frank Jr. has been arrested,” Trova Heffernan writes in, Where the Salmon Run: The Life and Legacy of Billy Frank Jr. (University of Washington Press, 2012). The most common estimate is over 50.
Jail is never fun. The Pierce County Jail is a concrete fortress holding criminals from Washington’s third largest city, Tacoma. In his biography Billy recounts being incarcerated with more serious offenders.
“They’d always ask us: ‘What are you guys in for?’ ‘We’re in for fishing.’ ‘Fishing?! What the hell are they doing? We’re here for robbing a bank and killing somebody.’”
The Nisqually River is part of Billy’s heritage and culture, running through his tribe’s reservation and past his father’s homestead, a location known as Frank’s Landing. Since time immemorial the river fed the Nisqually people with large runs of salmon and steelhead. Every year when the salmon return the tribe welcomes them with joyous ceremonies. It is a cornerstone of the their culture.
In 1854, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens pressured the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin tribes to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty. In exchange for nearly two and a quarter million acres of land the treaty gave the Nisqually a small reservation and a few thousand dollars. To obtain this bargain Stevens included Article 3 in the treaty that gave the Natives the right to fish in all their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations” both on and off the reservation.
Over time commercial and sport fishing by whites, along with damage caused by deforestation and industry, diminished the fish runs to dangerously low levels. Instead of imposing conservation practices on whites, the state made it illegal for the Native people to fish off their reservation and also outlawed the use of gillnets in the river. By the early 1900s the Medicine Creek Treaty was completely disregarded by the state. The Nisqually were forced to break the law and hide their fishing activities in order to feed themselves. That’s when the arrests began.
Originally, getting arrested was just a risk Billy regularly took by fishing with a gillnet. Later, it became part of a plan to gain publicity for a political group he helped found, the Survival of the American Indian Association or SAIA.
The idea was to stage “fish-ins” at which the press was invited to witness the arrests. The news coverage spread the word to the public. Celebrities including Marlon Brando and comedian Dick Gregory participated in some of these protests, increasing publicity.
Far from being glamorous occasions, the protests were often violent. Police used clubs, tear gas and strong-arm tactics to subdue the crowds. At one protest 60 people, including five juveniles, were arrested by police in riot gear.
After this protest the federal government stepped in and sued the state of Washington—U.S. v. Washingtonwas adjudicated by Judge George Boldt. Both Billy and his 103-year-old father, Willie Frank Sr., testified regarding the importance of fishing to their people and culture.
On February 12, 1974 Judge Boldt handed down his decision. The terms of the Treaty of Medicine Creek superseded state law. The tribes who signed the treaty were entitled to half the yearly salmon catch and were allowed to fish in their “usual and accustomed” locations, both on and off the reservation.
The Boldt Decision, as it became known, turned the outlaws into heroes and Billy into a nationally-recognized leader. As chairman of the newly formed Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, he would spend the rest of his life fighting to prevent and reduce damage to waterways in Western Washington and to protect salmon runs from the effects of industrial pollution and urban development.
The Medicine Creek Treaty, like the other treaties of the day, were actually tools of assimilation. Their effectiveness had rendered Billy’s people largely invisible to Western society, destined to disappear and be forgotten.
But Billy Frank Jr. refused to be invisible. Every protest, every arrest, was a lifeline he threw across time to save Native people from succumbing to the quicksand of assimilation. How fitting, then, that the former outlaw should have his name given to a street and put on signs and in addresses and letterheads, reminding us that our Native cultures still have power and have not disappeared.