Community leaders celebrate the life and legacy of Billy Frank Jr.


There were so many people at Billy Frank Jr.’s memorial service this week that some of the crowd of 6,000 people had to sit in an adjacent ballroom or in outdoor tents and watch the service on big-screen TVs. A long list of dignitaries across the political spectrum spoke in his honor.

Just like the turnout for his memorial, Billy Frank Jr. was massive. Not only in his quality as a man, but in his impact on the environment, tribal rights, civil rights, Washington state history and in the lives of countless people from all walks of life.

The Daily Astorian compared Frank to Gandhi (“Both men were effective and articulate spokesmen for transformational change.”) and to Chief Seattle and Chief Joseph. More than once, Frank was mentioned alongside Nelson Mandela, both of whom transcended the persecution they received because of their activism.

William Ruckelshaus, a longtime Seattle civic leader and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Frank did not dwell on how he was beaten and arrested during the “Fish Wars” of the 1960s and ’70s.

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. Instead, 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.

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.

Frank never stopped fighting. He was on a way to a meeting on the day of his death and was moving crowds up until the last days of his life, according to a statement last week from U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. 

Two weeks ago, the entire room fell silent at a tribal summit held at the Suquamish reservation in Washington to listen as Billy spoke forcefully and passionately about the need to tackle the growing threat of climate change. Billy shared a great sense of urgency that we come together as one people to work toward practical solutions to address its impacts.

To honor his life of service, let us redouble our efforts to do everything we can to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities and to partner with tribes across the country on caring for our lands, waters and wildlife.

Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said Frank left a void that won’t be easily replaced.

My fellow tribal leaders and I are feeling the loss of his wisdom and integrity amongst ourselves. Billy knew the power that could be had by leaders of many communities joining together, fighting to protect our shared interests, working to preserve our individual cultures, and leading all Native people forward. We all now must work to live according to his teachings without his direct guidance.

One of the themes from the speakers at Frank’s memorial service was that anyone who cares about environmental protection – our state’s salmon, streams and rivers – and his spirit of collaboration should further his legacy.

(Frank’s) work isn’t done yet, his niece Nancy Shippentower-Games said.

“Nobody can take his place,” she said. “But people can learn from him.”

After Frank died, a reporter asked state Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, who would pick up where Frank left off.

McCoy’s response: “All of us.”

Go to the Indian Country Today Media Network to see images of Frank’s life, or to for more tributes.