In December 2015, Congress voted to name the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, near Olympia, for Frank. The wildlife preserve, so close to where Frank grew up as a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was thereafter known as the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. But the new signs hadn’t gone up and most important, the refuge still hadn’t been dedlicated under its new name.
Until this week. Hundreds of tribal, federal, state and local leaders came to the refuge on Tuesday to celebrate the renaming and tell stories about Frank and his legacy.
The event featured a prayer and songs by the Nisqually tribe’s Canoe Family and remarks from more than a dozen people, including U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, Nisqually Indian Tribe Chairman Farron McCloud, Squaxin Island Tribe Councilman Jim Peters and former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks.
“He’s with us today, you can feel him — cussing at us, laughing at us,” McCloud said of Billy Frank with a chuckle. “But what a great, great man Billy was, and this is a great, great day.”
“He lived here, just upstream,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., who sponsored legislation renaming the refuge. “He was arrested here (for fishing under tribal treaty rights). The number Billy gave was 59 times.”
Heck, a close Frank friend, noted how it is said that a person dies twice, physically the first time and later when his or her words and contributions are forgotten. “We rename this refuge to keep Billy’s words alive,” he added.
“My uncle is going to be remembered forever and his story told,” said Nancy Shippentower-Games of the Puyallup Tribe.
…Billy Frank morphed from scofflaw to statesman, arguing that unless runs were better managed and destruction of habitat ceased, there would be no salmon runs left for anybody. Or as (Interior Secretary) Jewell put it, “He started as an activist, he ended as a collaborator.”
“He brought diverse people together, people who were fighting each other,” said Jim Peters, a councilman with the Squaxin tribe.
…Frank could be a booming voice of discontent, drawing out the words “Jeeesus Christ!” when people were recalcitrant.
He could also display the patience of Job, be it with the most junior Capitol Hill aide or with impatient native young people. “He would tell them, ‘It’s important you get an education.’ But don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget your traditions, where you came from,” said Shippentower-Games.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., invited Frank to make friendly her new suite in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “Billy did a blessing, lit some alder and ran through the offices,” Cantwell recalled. “It was during a high security alert. I was afraid he’d set off alarms and told Billy, ‘You could get arrested.’ And he replied, ‘I’m very good at that.'”
An eagle flew over the tent as the renaming ceremony morphed into a telling of Billy Frank stories. “He’s still here, he’s still with us and we will continue to be with him,” said Georgie Kautz, a commissioner with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.