OLYMPIA — Billy Frank Jr., a key figure in the fight to protect Native American fishing rights and salmon habitat, passed away at home on May 5, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission announced.
Frank was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years. He was 83.
A Nisqually Tribe member, Frank was known specifically for his grassroots campaign in defense of fishing rights on the Tribe’s Nisqually River north of Olympia in the 1960s and 1970s. Frank was arrested more than 50 times in the "Fish Wars" of that time.
In 1970, the U.S. sued the State of Washington on behalf of the Treaty Tribes, alleging the state was preventing Tribes from exercising the fishing rights guaranteed them under treaties signed with the U.S. On Feb. 12, 1974, U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt ruled in favor of the Treaty Tribes. An article in the treaties states “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” Boldt interpreted “in common with” to mean an equal share, 50 percent of the available salmon harvest.
But Boldt’s ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, did more than affirm Indian fishing rights. It upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. It established Treaty Tribes as co-managers of the salmon fishery. And it spawned other actions designed to protect salmon, because — as Frank stated in the ensuing years — if there is no salmon fishery, then the treaty is violated.