Local leaders attend ceremony dedicating land to Billy Frank Jr.


Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

Billy Frank Jr. didn't just change the world he lived in; he strove to make changes that would impact future generations for years to come.

"He stood for the next generation, and the generation after that, and the generation after that," said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer.

Kilmer was one of many local leaders who praised the environmental and tribal treaty rights activist for his work with youths Tuesday during a ceremony honoring Frank. Hundreds of people — including leaders from the Nisqually, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes — gathered to honor Frank, a member of the Nisqually Tribe, during an unveiling ceremony that renamed the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge as the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The 7,415-acre portion of land is located north of Olympia.

On Dec. 18, President Barack Obama signed the "Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act" into law, which renamed the wildlife refuge in honor of Frank. State and government officials, as well as local Native American tribal leaders, gathered at the newly renamed wildlife refuge to pay homage to Frank's life's work.

Frank died May 5, 2014, at 83 years old. Until the day he died, Frank worked as an activist for tribal treaty rights. He is best known for his work during the fish wars of the 1960s and '70s. He was arrested more than 50 times for fishing, and forced the state and federal governments to recognize native fishing rights.

Kilmer recalled whenever he saw Frank, the activist was surrounded by youths he was mentoring.

"He always had young people around him," Kilmer said, adding that when Frank spoke at events, he usually publicly praised one or two tribal youths for recent accomplishments. "Dozens of young people worked with him and considered him a mentor.... He always worked with the younger generation in mind."

The event also honored the anniversary of the Medicine Creek Treaty with a memorial. The treaty was signed in 1894 at the wildlife refuge between the U.S. government and leaders of the South Puget Sound Tribes; it was the first treaty with the Northwest tribes, which paved the way for other treaties allowing the tribes to maintain their traditions.

In the mid-1800s, state government signed various treaties with local tribes, which made the tribes give up land, while allowing them to retain the right to traditional fishing areas. Eventually, the state government began interfering with native fishing rights, because there was no one to enforce the treaties.

However, Frank, knowing the laws and his rights, fished in the areas allowed to the tribes through the treaties.

Jim Peters, councilman for the Squaxin Island Tribe, pointed' to this pivotal knowledge as Frank's strength, and said he often saw Frank encourage others to learn the laws as well.

"He reached out to kids, saying, 'Go get an education,' "Peters said, adding that then, students could return to their reservation or home to follow in Frank's footsteps. "Continue that fight; don't forget it."

Peters said Frank's legacy is taught to Squaxin Island youths today. The tribe has added curriculum in schools to talk about treaty rights and the endangered salmon to ensure Frank's fight is not forgotten.

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, who helped pass the "Tell Your Story Act," said the newly named wildlife refuge will make sure Frank's legacy never dies. He referenced the idea that people die twice; first when they stop breathing, and the second time, when the living world stops talking about them.

"And we should never stop talking about Billy Frank Jr.," Heck said.

The Squaxin Island Tribe also introduced Billy Frank Jr. Day this year, which took place March 9. Tribe members get the day off work to remember Frank's legacy.

Peters equated Frank to Martin Luther King Jr. for Native Americans, calling for government officials to make Billy Frank Jr. Day a nationally celebrated holiday.

During the event, youngsters from the Squaxin Island Tribe summer program toured the wildlife refuge, learning about endangered salmon and other native species on the land. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spoke with the students at one point during the day, saying that the refuge was named for Frank because of his activism.

"Because of the work he did, we get to enjoy this incredible place," she said.

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