Steps from the Nisqually River where Billy Frank Jr. fished and facing his mounted dugout canoe, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law Wednesday to honor Frank, champion of treaty rights and environmental protections, with a statue at the nation’s Capitol.
“I hope people realize the significance of having one of our own Native people here in Washington, D.C., representing not just our tribes but the state of Washington,” Willie Frank III, Nisqually Tribal Council member and Frank’s son, told reporters before the signing.
“This isn’t just about our tribes in the state of Washington, this is Indian country. And I don’t think there could be a better human being that gets honored, because of his co-management, his way of bringing us together.”
The signing of the bill, which passed through both chambers of the Legislature on broadly bipartisan votes, starts a process to swap out the statue of missionary Marcus Whitman now in the National Statuary Hall Collection in D.C. with one of Frank’s likeness. Each state contributes two statues of notable deceased residents to the collection. Washington’s other statue is of pioneer Mother Joseph.
Billy Frank Jr. was a tireless force for endangered salmon and treaty rights and organized “fish-ins” that led to the court ruling known as the Boldt decision affirming the rights of treaty tribes to half of all harvestable salmon and naming them co-managers of state fisheries.
Frank was first arrested for exercising his right to fish for salmon at age 14 and was arrested more than 50 times in all. Among his many awards: President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Frank the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Memories of Frank, who died in 2014, were ever-present at Wednesday’s ceremony, which took place in the lobby of Wa He Lut Indian School. The school was founded by members of the Frank’s Landing Indian Community to ensure Native American children get the education promised in the Medicine Creek treaty, according to its website.
“If you listen closely, you can hear Billy’s voice throughout the room: ‘Tell your story, tell your story, tell your story...’” said bill sponsor Rep. Debra Lekanoff of Bow. “Never forget who you are and where you come from. We stand in this room surrounded by the spirit of Billy today, rising us up, reminding us of what’s important, our values, our dedication to our people.”
The ceremony included songs and an opening prayer, as well as speeches from his son, Inslee, Nisqually Chairman Ken Choke, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, and Lekanoff, the first Native American woman to be elected to the House and the only serving in the Legislature.
“This is a huge honor for the state of Washington and a blessing for the United States of America,” Inslee said. “Because we are sending to the U.S. Capitol the best of the state of Washington. The best of the state of Washington is a person who lived a life dedicated to several of the highest values we hold...”
Heck, who knew Frank for decades and worked with him on natural resource issues, called Frank “a great man” in a conversation with McClatchy before the ceremony.
“I’m an old guy, and I know a lot of people,” Heck said. “The ones that I consider truly great don’t fit on two hands. He was a great man. He was a giant who walked among us.”
In talking about the significance of the future statue, many emphasized the opportunity it will present for so many people to ask about Frank, educate themselves, and learn of his work, values, and fight for justice. Whoever has the honor of sculpting him, Inslee told reporters, “has some real character to work with.”
“I think he’d be very honored today, but I think he would tell us all that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” his son said.