Cantwell Honors Billy Frank Jr. in Speech on U.S. Senate Floor

Cantwell: Billy Frank was ‘a legend who walked among us’



WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a speech on the U.S. Senate floor, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) today memorialized civil rights leader Billy Frank, Jr., a Nisqually Tribal elder and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Frank passed away on May 5, 2014.

“He was a legend that walked among us,” Cantwell said. “Billy championed environmental rights and the rights of Native American people to fish. And he championed the salmon to make sure that they had good habitat.

“We know that Billy Frank will always be with us and the salmon of the Pacific Northwest. We will miss him.”

Video of Cantwell’s speech is available here.

Below is a full transcript of Cantwell’s speech:

“I’m glad to join my colleague, the senior Senator, to commemorate a great Washingtonian that we lost last week:  Billy Frank, Jr. Senator Murray and I were able to attend his memorial service yesterday in the South Puget Sound area with 6,000 other Washingtonians. You know that is what happens when a great leader is lost- the community shows up to commemorate him and his spirit.

“Everybody who knew Billy Frank across the United States of America – and there are many people from all over Indian Country that do know or knew of Billy Frank – they will want us to remember that he was a legend that walked among us. He championed environmental rights and the rights of Native American people to fish. And he championed the salmon to make sure that they had good habitat.

“Sometimes I wonder how a boy who grew up on the Nisqually River turned into such a big Pacific Northwest hero. For him, it started when he was a very young man listening to fishing stories from his father and many members of the Nisqually Tribe. In a book about his life, his father, Willie Frank Sr., recalled a warden telling him, ‘Your treaty isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.’

“So while Billy’s family faced beating, incarcerations, and implicit and explicit racism, he decided that he was going to defend those rights all the way to the Supreme Court. As he grew into adolescence, his father said to him, ‘Keep fishing.’ Even if they arrest you, keep fishing. Even if they beat you, keep fishing. Even if they say the fishing claims aren’t yours and they challenge them, keep fishing. He knew that those fishing claims were promised in the Medicine Creek Treaty.

“Billy was arrested more than 50 times in this struggle to secure the rights that were guaranteed to him by this government in a treaty. In fact, also in that book, he once was jailed and was asked by some of the people in jail –as he called them ‘bank robbers’- what he was in for. Billy just said, ‘Fishing.’

“He took the beatings and instead of turning all of that into anger, he urged people to do things in a non-violent way and to stand up for what they thought were important issues.

“He had a great sense of humor. He once said:  ‘If a salmon gets away from you, don’t cuss. Don’t say anything. That salmon, he’s going up the river. He’s producing more salmon for you and all of us. The salmon—he’s coming home. And we’ve got to take care of his home.’ 

“That’s the vision that helped Billy win one of the greatest victories that Tribes in the United States of America have ever seen. In a landmark decision, the court abolished regulations and discrimination against Indian fishermen and allowed the Tribes to self-regulate and co-manage and have the opportunity to catch up to half of the harvestable catch. We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of that historic Boldt decision. And yesterday, we had a chance to pay tribute to a man who had a critical role in that decision.”

“But as my colleague, Senator Murray, said, Billy Frank did more than just fight for that decision. He continued to focus on restoration of Puget Sound, including the Nisqually Delta, one of the largest tidal marsh restorations in the Pacific Northwest. It has increased the potential for salt marsh habitat in the southernmost reaches of the Puget Sound by over 50 percent. And, because of his advocacy, we have a program now called the Puget Sound Partnership – which is a public-private-tribal partnership trying to improve the health of Puget Sound.

“And he’s the reason we have an agreement called Timber Fish Wildlife, which is a model for how people –people around the United States of America – should try to resolve some of their differences on environmental issues instead of suing and going to court forever and never having any kind of resolution. This kind of collaboration helps people address the environmental issues at hand. All of these are things that Billy Frank accomplished.

As my colleague, Senator Murray said, it was almost like he was larger than life, and did this job that seemed like it could have and should have really been many, many people. But instead, he just did it in his own way. We will miss him, and we thank the work and the people with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for all that they’ve done to help us in the Northwest set the right course. While he won’t be there in person, we know that Billy Frank will always be with us and the salmon of the Pacific Northwest. We will miss him. Mr. President, I yield the floor.”