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Chapter nineteen of “Where the Salmon Run” written by Trova Heffernan and sponsored by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.
You can follow the reach of Billy Frank Jr. from the floor of the Pacific Ocean to the snowy peaks of Alaska. He is a familiar face in both chambers of Congress and the only tribal member who can pull strings to secure an appointment with the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says longtime friend Patricia Zell. The fact is most people like him. Billy has personally known every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter. “I’ve sat you next to Alice Rivlin [Budget Director], Billy, because I know you and the salmon need the money,” Bill Clinton said, during the 1995 Pacific Rim Economic Conference in Portland.
“Presidents, we just outlive them, but we always stay the course,” Billy muses. “We’re working for the natural world out here.”
Mike Grayum has a trove of Billy stories at his disposal that span four decades:
In D.C., in the elevator, in the Capitol Building, wherever you are, all of a sudden somebody cries out, “Billy!” and puts the hug on him.
“Who was that, Billy?”
“I don’t really know.”
We’re walking down the street in downtown Tacoma, across from the museum and the courthouse. I think we’d been in a restaurant. Three young ladies come walking from the other way. They got 20 or 30 feet from us and they said, “Oh my god! That’s Billy Frank!” And they’re jumping up and down, screaming, running up and throwing their arms around him. Billy, of course, is returning the hugs. We get done with that and walk on.
“Billy, who was that?”
“I don’t know.”
Billy keeps close friends in high places, like Dan Inouye, an influential U.S. senator from Hawaii. Inouye is convinced Billy helped turn around the stereotype of Native Americans in Washington, D.C. “If he’d been born 150 years ago, he’d be a chief,” the senator says.
Early on in a twenty-year friendship, Inouye climbed cautiously into a boat on the Nisqually River with the elder for an excursion across Pacific Northwest Indian Country. Plenty of differences stood between them. Billy is open, Inyoue reserved. The senator is not someone who warms easily upon introduction, clarifies Patricia Zell, a friend of both men. But he responded immediately to Billy, after observing him at a private dinner party with Warren Magnuson.
Because Inouye sacrificed a limb on a battlefield during the Second World War, he worried that day in the boat. His one arm could have thrown him off balance. But the new chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs gave Billy undivided attention, as they visited tribal reservations of the Makah, Nisqually, and Yakama. “You need to accept gifts. I don’t care what the ethics rules say,” Billy told Inouye. The Nisqually then related his anger over the fish wars, the incessant fighting for every scrap, and the jail time.
Inouye made more than a dozen trips to Washington State in the midst of one of the century’s largest land agreements with an Indian tribe. In the sweeping Puyallup Land Claims Settlement Act brokered in the late eighties, tribal members gave up claims to prime real estate in Tacoma in exchange for a $162 million dollar settlement.
Around meetings, Inouye, Zell, Billy, and his wife, Sue Crystal, met for breakfast or lunch at a restaurant near what was then the Tacoma Sheraton. On one occasion, the senator handed the waitress his credit card. “When the waitress approached the table, she eyed both men closely,” Zell recalls. “Then, she stepped back looking mystified.” The credit card clearly belonged to a U.S. senator.
The waitress looked directly at Billy. “Which senator are you?”
Zell says Inouye appeared somewhat taken aback by the assumption, but the faux pas never bruised his ego. The story still gets laughs.
Inouye and Billy also collaborated on a struggle for treaty rights in Wisconsin not unlike the conflict in the Pacific Northwest. The Chippewa Indians have a long history spearing spawning walleyed pike on the lakes of Wisconsin, boarding their canoes with lanterns fastened to their helmets. Like Northwest Indians for whom gillnetting is part of their heritage and culture, the Chippewas revere spearing. By way of three nineteenth-century treaties, the Chippewas ceded land to the U.S. government, but retained their rights to harvest timber, to hunt, and to fish off Indian reservations.
Walleye is not revered by tribes alone. It is a sportsman’s trophy. Named for its prominent and wide-set eyes, the often twenty-pound walleye is sought after at night, as it forages dark waters.
Protests erupted for years after a 1983 federal court opinion upheld treaty rights of the Chippewas at 178 lakes in northern Wisconsin and enraged non-Indian fishermen. Individual demonstrators and organizations like Stop Treaty Abuse, scattered across the shores, taunting Natives, hurling racial slurs and making death threats. In escalated cases, bombs and sniper fire were used. Sports fishers charged the Indians with capitalizing on treaties to rob lakes of fish in a tourismdependent territory. But state Department of Natural Resources records revealed otherwise. While sports fishers took in more than 650,000 walleye in 1989, Chippewa Indians speared just 16,000.
After an especially ugly turn of events at a boat landing in 1989, the State of Wisconsin attempted to shut down Native spearfishing by court order. The judge, Barbara Crabb, refused, comparing the turmoil to the struggles of African Americans in the 1960s.
The Chippewas sought out Inouye, then chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. He, in turn, contacted the committee’s chief counsel, Zell, who suggested that the events playing out in Wisconsin were strikingly similar to experiences in Washington State.
With peace on the waters of Washington State, parties from both sides of the conflict cautioned the people of Wisconsin against pursuing a dangerous course of action. A joint report of federal, state, and tribal assessments of the fishery resource was produced with a public education campaign to debunk myths that the tribes were destroying fish in Wisconsin.
On his own dime, Billy joined Northwest fisheries managers, including one-time combatants, and traveled to the Midwest. At conferences, he urged Indians and non-Indians to get together. The tribes are not a threat to the fish, he told audiences.
“Wisconsin doesn’t have an ‘Indian Problem’! Washington doesn’t have an ‘Indian Problem,’ but the blame is put on us.” Billy urged the tribes to speak with a single voice. “If we are not together, nobody will ever hear us and the resource will decline.”
The 1983 federal court opinion in Wisconsin established a commission, much like the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission that formed after U.S. v. Washington. Sue Erickson, with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, says input from Billy made a difference. “He was a voice of experience and what the Northwest went through and how it all played out. It wasn’t a problem unique to Wisconsin. He was an excellent speaker and ardent about treaty rights,” says Sue Erickson. In 1991, the Chippewas sued one of the protesting organizations, Stop Treaty Abuse, and won the case. The judge ordered “a preliminary injunction prohibiting all forms of interference with tribal spear fishing.” Protestors lost credibility with the public. The lawsuit and the public education campaign brought more peace to the lakes of Wisconsin.
“We went there to educate, along with our Great Lakes tribes, to educate the governor at that time, to keep from having any kind of killings going on or anything like that. And so we did that, all of us together,” Billy says.
Billy remains a trusted advisor on Indian affairs in national politics, and a catalyst around the world. In 2010, U.S. Senator Inouye nominated the Nisqually Indian for the Nobel Peace Prize: “Through the ages of our species, the intervention of one race of people over another has resulted in the holocausts that time has recklessly forgotten. It is healing left undone.
“Yet, that is what this simple Native fisherman from the Pacific Northwest had done year after year, decade after decade, in village, town, city and various nations—in such a manner that he stirs the blood of all who hear him and he leaves a lesson of love wherever he goes.”
Billy also earned high marks for influencing votes at the United Nations in support of a moratorium on driftnets. The thirty-mile traps ensnare marine life, like dolphins and even whales, in massive sweeps of the ocean floor. Dubbed the walls of death, more than thirty thousand miles of driftnet were deployed each day by foreign fleets before the moratorium was secured.
Japan initially fought the ban, noting it would put ten thousand fishermen out of work and make the harvesting of flying squid, a Japanese delicacy, difficult.
A pact was reached at the United Nations in December 1989, for a moratorium everywhere on the high seas after the spring of 1992. Japan agreed to pull half its driftnets by mid-year and the remaining by year’s end. The agreement also reduced driftnet fishing in the South Pacific.
Hank Adams and Jolene Unsoeld, the environmentalist and congresswoman who worked at Billy’s side, say the elder swayed votes by selling the concept of a sustainable fishery: “There’s nothing phony about him. I don’t know of anyone [of his stature] who has been at such a detailed level of pushing policy. He certainly mourns for the things we humans aren’t doing, but there’s no bitterness.”
In September 2006, the camera found the Nisqually elder at work in America’s northern-most city, Barrow, Alaska. “These are our First Nations,” he professed, stretching his arms above the icy waters of Prince William Sound. The elder hosted a segment of the 2008 series, This Is Indian Country, that demands that corporate America pay the forgotten victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Alaskan Natives living in coastal communities were among the hardest hit by the accident. “These are our first nations,” Billy told viewers. “These are our first stories. This is where our lives begin.”
There is no place on earth like this part of Alaska. Its untarnished surroundings, its stunning landscape, and its marine life lead you far away from the gridlock and city skylines that define modern America. The hum of traffic is replaced by the stillness of nature. “This is the soul of indigenous America,” Billy said during filming, “places you’ve probably never seen. Sounds you’ve probably never heard. People you knew nothing about. . . . This is their home. This is their mountains. This is all of their land here. All of that water is theirs.”
Alaskan Natives lost their livelihoods and the means to practice their culture when the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in March 1989. The 987-foot ship spewed nearly eleven million gallons of crude oil and toxic disaster into Prince William Sound. At the time, the United States had never witnessed a more massive oil spill. Lethal crud spread nearly five hundred miles, coating some thirteen hundred miles of shoreline, devastating marine and wildlife. Seabirds, whales, bald eagles and sea otters died. Fisheries, tourism, and Alaskan Natives paid a price.
Years have passed, and they’re still paying. A small army of workers may have combed beaches in a billion-dollar cleanup effort after the accident, but oil remains. Ducks and otters are killed, scavenging the sand for prey and releasing oil. During the shoot, Billy walked the beaches and turned over rocks to discover fresh oil, bathing the once unspoiled terrain. Populations of animals and marine life are slow to rebound.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice and the State of Alaska asked for an additional $92 million to clean up “relative fresh oil” still damaging habitat, but Exxon has disputed the charge. The case is considered “unresolved.” In addition to earning Billy an Emmy Award for best host, This Is Indian Country drew attention to the lingering impact of the spill, its impact on Alaska Natives, and the 2006 claim.
“I went through all of the villages up there and taped them and getting information and telling the story about them, not me, about them,” Billy says. “Don’t hire anybody from New York to come out to tell your story. Hire your Indians, the Eskimos or the Natives. Hire them because they have a story to tell.”
The documentary moved a little-known story from the coastal communities of Alaska to the small screen. “We come across the bay and here we are, up to our knees in oil,” Billy said to an Alaskan Native during the taping. “This oil is supposed to have been cleaned up, and you know your people is living with it 24 hours a day. . . . I’ll be back,” Billy told him.
At the Wildhorse Resort and Casino in Pendleton, Oregon, tension was palpable. “You could cut it with a knife,” recalls Royce Pollard, then mayor of Vancouver, Washington. They were busily planning for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2004. The uncomfortable environment found meeting goers with their arms crossed. Billy sat at the U-shaped table with Pollard, historian David Nicandri, trustee Kelso Gillenwater, and Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nation. Also present were Roberta “Bobbie” Conner, a Cayuse Indian, and historian Allen Pinkham, of the Nez Perce.
The country would soon celebrate the bicentennial of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. Pollard invited tribes to the upcoming events in Vancouver. Because of the rocky relationship between the Nez Perce and the city of Vancouver, a meeting was called to order.
“Why the hell would we want to go to Vancouver, where Chief Red Heart was held prisoner?” Conner demanded, referring to the eight-month imprisonment of Red Heart that began in 1877, when he and his band were captured in Idaho and transported to Fort Vancouver. The seizure made the Vancouver Independent: “Thirty-three Nez Perce Indian prisoners, men, women and children, arrived at the Post Tuesday evening, under the guard of 19 soldiers. The Indian men are all stalwart, swarthy looking fellows, and, no doubt know the exact turn of the wrist in lifting a scalp. . . . The prisoners will be confined in the Guard House until such time as it may be thought best to send them to a reservation.”
Pollard says he made the mistake of calling the commemoration a celebration, and “things went downhill from there.” In passing, Pollard noted that he was not only the mayor of Vancouver but a retired commander of the Vancouver Barracks.
“You’re the guy who held my great-grandfather prisoner,” Minthorn declared. A few minutes later, he added, “It’s just Native American humor, Mr. Mayor.” But the point was made.
Billy interjected, “The mayor has come a long way to extend a hand of friendship. We should not slap the hand extended to us.”
“Once Bill Frank broke the ice, things took on an organic quality,” Nicandri recalls. In due course, they agreed to meet again. Billy never attended another session, but he had salvaged the relationship. Conner, once decidedly negative, became the enthusiastic vice chairman of the entire celebration. There’s now an annual gettogether of the two cultures at Fort Vancouver.
“We want to get the history set straight about this country and the Indian people,” Billy said to explain the tribes’ involvement in commemorating the pivotal expedition across the American West.
Next: Operation Chainsmoker