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Congressman Denny Heck

Representing the 10th District of Washington

Billy Frank lives ... in words, stories and a namesake national wildlife refuge

Jul 19, 2016
In The News

At any gathering where Billy Frank Jr. was present, you'd see a circle of attendees leaning in to better hear words from a native civil rights leader once arrested 59 times for "illegal" fishing near his home on the Nisqually River.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was at a 2014 symposium in Suquamish two weeks before Frank "moved on."  She remembered Tuesday the "warmth, enthusiasm and four-letter words" as well as "that Billy bear hug."

Jewell was at a ceremony -- better termed a reunion of Billy's friends -- to rededicate the renamed Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in the estuary of a river that Frank helped transform into a national model for restoring a watershed.

"He lived here, just upstream," said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., who sponsored legislation renaming the refuge.  "He was arrested here.  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.

The wildlife refuge is just north of a stretch of Interstate 5 infamous for its traffic tie-ups and, when traffic is moving rapidly, its Washington State Patrol speed traps.

But the refuge affords both an experience of lifeforms and a study of Washington history, the struggles of Indian country, and eventual change for the better.

Over decades, state officials ignored the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, which reserved fishing rights for treaty Indian tribes.  Game wardens arrested Frank and other tribal fishermen, and accused them of harming the salmon runs.  At the same time, destructive forest practices were wiping out salmon habitat.

The Nisqually estuary fared no better.  Its saltwater wetlands were dammed.  Agriculture faltered.  Local county commissioners schemed to build a super port.  Weyerhaeuser acquired 3,000 acres in nearby Dupont for a planned sawmill, pulp mill and a log export dock "only" half a mile long.

The turning point came in 1974.  U.S. District Judge George Boldt reaffirmed the rights of treaty Indians to fish in their accustomed places -- where Billy Frank was repeatedly busted -- and were entitled to 50 percent of the annual salmon catch.

The same year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service acquired land in the estuary.  A long push began to restore tidal wetlands, places for juvenile salmon to grow up before they head for the Pacific Ocean.

"It took 25 years, but we got it done," said former longtime U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a benefactor of the refuge for whom its visitor center is named. A total of 762 acres of historic estuary have been restored.

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 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. 

The Indian fisherman from the Nisqually would be awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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.

In a tangible way, he is.  The renaming legislation created a Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial, designed to promote education in Washington's native heritage, the wrongs that were committed and the struggle to right them.

The frustrations of trying to get something done in Washington, D.C., even gave way -- for speech-making in a gorgeous spot. 

Secretary Jewell, a former CEO at REI, emulated "that Billy bear hug" with just about every tribal elder on hand ... putting on a hugging display to rival that of ex-King County Executive Ron Sims.  Jewell and other speakers were wrapped in robes as they left the dais.

Denny Heck has experienced, and fought, the paralysis of the House of Representatives since he was elected in 2012.  He fought a protracted war last year to get reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank after right-wing lobbies tried to shut it down.  The bank guarantees financing for U.S. exports overseas.

Post-ceremony, walking back to the visitor center, Heck confessed that he has experienced 43 months of frustration in Congress.

"Not today," said Heck, having honored a friend and worked to keep heritage and history alive.

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