Background image of Indigenous Leadership Award Honoree, Billy Frank, Jr.

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Billy Frank, Jr.:
River revolutionary

"That’s who we are. We’re salmon people."

Ecotrust mourns the loss of Billy Frank, Jr., who passed away this morning. He has been our founding inspiration, and we honor his legacy and commitment to his homeland and people. —Editor, May 5, 2014

In Indian Country, Billy Frank, Jr. is a legend — someone who stood up, not just for his people’s right to fish Washington’s Nisqually River, but for salmon themselves. Still, many people don’t know his story.

Fortunately, a new biography, Where the Salmon Run, published by the Washington State Heritage Center, traces his life story, moving from his childhood into the contentious 1960s and 1970s, when Frank was an activist and renegade, fighting to uphold tribal fishing rights, and on to his work today within the system, as the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), winner of the Albert Schweitzer Prize for humanitarianism, among many other awards, and one of our country’s most sincere and effective voices for healthy watersheds, clean water and flourishing salmon populations.

In anticipation of Ecotrust’s annual Indigenous Leadership Awards in November, Shaunna McCovey, Ecotrust’s tribal affairs policy associate, recently sat down with Frank, a 2003 ILA nominee, to talk about his life’s work. Here’s a sneak peek at what he said. The full feature will run in Edible Portland’s fall issue, out September 5.

Billy Frank, Jr. fishing the Nisqually River in 1973.
Billy Frank, Jr. fishing the Nisqually River in 1973.

“Salmon is who we are.”

“It’s so important that we have our salmon. That’s who we are. We’re salmon people. We ate salmon all our lives. We smoke him. We dry him. We put him in jars. We depend on him. We have a big ceremony when he comes back. We draw pictures about him. We talk about him all the time.

We try to educate our younger people because we’ve got to change what’s going on. Right now, we’re going down. There hasn’t been no change. And there ain’t gonna be no more salmon if we keep going down. But if we could get a change, then the salmon is going to come back. We’ll see it come back in the next hundred years. We’ll [have to] work on it every day.

That’s what I tell our national Indian kids: ‘I need you guys to continue to do what you’re doing in natural resources. Don’t get off track and start going this way or that way. We need environmental engineers. We need all the skills of the professional world to protect this watershed of the Puget Sound. Commit yourself to a life.’”

Update: Download the full interview with Billy Frank, Jr.