Nisqually Indian Reservation – He was arrested 50 times by state game wardens for practicing his treaty right to fish. But on Wednesday, Washington's governor signed into law legislation that will send a statue of Billy Frank Jr. to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
One of the country's most elegant and revered civic spaces, Statuary Hall is where states from around the country get to send two figures to represent the hopes and dreams of their people. Now Frank, a legendary Nisqually tribal leader and treaty rights activist, will take his place there.
At the signing ceremony at the Wa He Lut Indian School on the Nisqually reservation, Gov. Jay Inslee said he was honored to sign it.
"Billy represents two basic Washington values, a thirst for justice, which he fought for, and the desire to protect our natural beauty and the natural world," Inslee said at the ceremony held in the school's atrium. Frank's canoe — confiscated by game wardens in many raids on Native salmon fishermen — hung from the ceiling as the governor spoke.
Wednesday's bill-signing was the second piece of legislation out of the 2021 session that addresses Native American representation. The Legislature on Monday passed a bill that bans the use of Native American names, symbols and images as school mascots.
Wednesday was a day for tributes and gratitude to a man who managed to put aside the memory of violence and injustice as he was beaten and jailed, to work as a tribal leader to affirm tribal treaty fishing rights and protect the salmon in the rivers he loved.
Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said Frank, who died in 2014 at age 83, was one of the few people he had ever known who could make the transition from fighting to collaborating, leading the way on everything from improving state timber policies to protecting salmon habitat to defending treaty rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"He went from the self-described getting-arrested guy to the great reconciler," Heck said.
Now that the bill is signed into law, a committee will be formed to select an artist to create the statue, and private funds will be raised to pay for its creation and installation. The artist will have plenty to work with. A big man with a trademark gray ponytail and the shoulders and hands of a lifelong fisherman, Frank was a powerful presence.
His usual greeting was a bear hug, a shower of good-natured profanity and an exhortation always to keep working on behalf of the salmon.
While he would have been glad to see the celebration Wednesday, he also would have told everyone to get right back to work, his son Willie Frank III, a member of the Nisqually Tribal Council, told the crowd. Many gathered for the bill-signing had worked with Billy Frank Jr. for decades and nodded knowingly.
After the ceremony, Frank III led the governor and several family members to the banks of the Nisqually River to Frank's Landing, and stood with one of the state's highest officials where his father had been arrested so many times.
After the pictures and congratulations, as the crowd dispersed, Frank III was quiet.
"It makes a circle," he said. "This is the spot where everything happened."
Wednesday's honor was among a long run of other important recognitions. A Korean War veteran, Frank Jr. received the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism; the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award and the Washington State Medal of Merit. In 2015, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor — by then-President Barack Obama.