Nisqually Tribal Councilor Attends State of the Union
Following President Donald Trump’s decision to slash funding to environmental agencies and subject the Pacific Northwest to offshore drilling, Nisqually Tribal Councilor Willie Frank III attended the State of the Union to address the negative effects to Indian Country.
“Blood, sweat and tears have been shed from our elders,” Frank said. “They had to fight and now in 2018 it’s a different fight, we are now advocating and defending our rights in the halls of Congress.”
Frank, the son of legendary Nisqually Tribe advocate Billy Frank Jr., was invited by U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Washington, who has a long-standing relationship with the Nisqually Indian Tribe.
Frank represented not only the Nisqually Indian Tribe but Indian Country as a whole. His father was known for his involvement in the fish wars of the 1960s and advocating for tribal rights until he died in May of 2014. Frank said his father was in Washington, D.C. so often that he knew the hotel phone number where his father stayed.
“He’s done a very good job of keeping his father’s legacy alive and there are many ways to describe Billy’s legacy,” Heck said. “He was a peacemaker, a bridge builder, who was known to bring competing points of view to a table and provide a good outcome.”
In the President’s 83-minute speech, he addressed many of his signature policies which include cutting taxes and immigration reform but failed to address concerns regarding climate change. He didn’t mention white supremacy but did use the family of two teenage girls killed by the mostly Hispanic gang MS-13 for support of his immigration policy.
Before the speech, Frank spoke with members of Congress on both sides of the political spectrum about concerns of the Nisqually Indian Tribe including the issue of water. He said everybody that he talked with took interest in clean water and sustainable growth although neither subject was mentioned by the President.
“If I got across to one person, I’m doing my job,” Frank said. “If our presence isn’t there, you let him win, if we don’t go we let Trump win.”
The Nisqually Indian Tribe has been outspoken on protecting natural resources of the Puget Sound and were against the state lawmakers decision to “fix” the Hirst decision.
The Hirst “fix’ allows permit exempt wells to draw up to 3,000 gallons per day in the Nisqually Basin and allows up to 950 gallons per day in the Deschutes and Puyallup basins.
Although many cities in the state, including Yelm are celebrating the decision, the Nisqually Tribe is worried the area will over-stress the water supply and create larger problems in the future.
“Water is going to be the issue for your kids and my kids,” said Debbie Preston, Nisqually public information officer.
Preston referenced the unsustainable growth of Cape Town, the capital of South Africa, and attributed overstress of their water supply to a water shortage. Cape Town, with four million people, is poised to run out of water in mid-April due to population growth and a record drought.
“All these people come to the beautiful Pacific Northwest to build something in the middle of the wilderness,” Preston said. “Tribes aren’t against growth, just responsible management. People say ‘we love salmon’ but don’t know what that means.”
Heck called the Puget Sound “endangered’’ and said Puget Sound is already unhealthy with deteriorating fish runs and a decline in the orca whale population. He said Puget Sound is similar to a giant bathtub filling with pollution from stormwater runoff.
The Nisqually Tribe in January of 2017 made an unpopular decision to prohibit fishing of chum salmon on the Nisqually River for the first time in known history. They hoped chum would make a return if they stopped fishing for the species entirely which led many people to believe the tribe was hoarding all of the fish. That isn’t the case according to Frank. After a midseason count at Yelm Creek, fishing was opened for chum but the tribe learned the fish are coming about 21 days later and the health and strength of the fish were concerning to the tribe.
Chinook salmon have also been dismal since 2013 according to the tribe although the most recent run was the best Chinook season in the last five years. They are concerned with the health the Puget Sound and Nisqually River considering the Nisqually hatchery is the most upstream of any hatchery on the river.
“The Tribe and sports fisherman benefited from shutting down the fishery,” Frank said. “The hatchery is the reason for the fish runs so don’t blame the tribes for not catching fish.”
Trump recently cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion and opened the Washington and Oregon coasts to offshore oil drilling.
Heck, along with 15 other lawmakers in Congress, signed a letter to the Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to remove Washington and Oregon from the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson also threatened Zinke with a lawsuit unless Washington is removed from the plan.
“He (Heck) has always had a good relationship with us,” Frank said. “He’s a warrior for tribal issues, protecting climate change and protecting treaty rights.”
One part of Trump’s speech both Heck and Frank did appreciate is the mention of opioid abuse, an issue that Frank and the Nisqually Tribe are familiar with.
Frank slipped into a downward spiral of opioid abuse after his father’s death in 2014. He was charged with embezzling $50,000 from the tribe and is still on probation but found help through treatment and mentorship from elders in the tribe. The tribe has also made a big push for substance abuse treatment, recovery and prevention in recent years.
“I have dealt with addiction and nobody is going to save you but yourself, you have to want to save yourself,” Frank said. “This is a battle that me and the Chairman (Farron McCloud) always talk about.”
Frank is nearly four years clean from prescription drug and alcohol abuse, a milestone Frank and Heck are proud of.
“I’m so proud of him, I can barely contain myself,” Heck said. “I care a lot about that young man and I am honored to have real conversations with him as he’s going on four years now.”