Chapter seventeen of “Where the Salmon Run” written by Trova Heffernan and sponsored by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.
Along with his happy-go-lucky persona is tough Billy, a man who is unafraid to stand up for treaty rights or salmon, regardless of his opponent’s stature.
When Republican Ken Eikenberry tossed his hat in the ring for governor in 1992, Billy didn’t mince words: “People supporting Ken Eikenberry for governor must be doing so for one of two reasons. They either want to destroy the natural resources of this state, or they don’t really know Ken Eikenberry.” Billy accused Eikenberry of opposing cooperative management with the tribes and predicted that if elected he would drag them to court.
While their mutual admiration is readily evident, there are even spats between good friends Norm Dicks and Billy. Dicks calls them family disputes. He’ll push Billy, he says admittedly, when he wants more out of the tribes. “One of the things I wanted the tribes to work on with the state and feds was marking of salmon,” Dicks says. The tribes were initially reluctant. “They have a certain number of hatcheries of their own. I wanted them to mark their fish, which means you clip off the adipose fin. We got the money to get the Pacific Salmon Recovery Initiative, which Al Gore and I had put together. Now, all these fish are marked. The reason that’s so important is that you want to distinguish between hatchery fish and wild fish.”
Another example came in the mid-1990s, when Billy took the podium in the old Executive Office Building next door to the White House. “We are not interested in preserving salmon as museum pieces,” Billy told the crowd. “We are fishermen—we always have been, and we always will be. We need fish to harvest.” The June day in 1997 marked the beginning of a new relationship between the United States and Indian tribes with issues involving the Endangered Species Act.
But behind the scenes, Billy had had a run-in with Bruce Babbitt, the former governor of Arizona sworn into office as Interior secretary in 1993. Under the ESA, any taking or killing of listed species is illegal. Many species of salmon are listed, including species on Indian reservations.
“A basic part of Indian law is that you read those words as the Indians would have understood them,” attorney Charles Wilkinson believes. “You read a federal statute in favor of the tribes. The Endangered Species Act never mentions tribes, and it never mentions abrogating treaty rights to take salmon.” According to Wilkinson, both sides could make the case that the ESA should or should not apply to treaty tribes. Wilkinson continues:
We sent this long letter to Babbitt asking for formal negotiations. We ended up having top-level people go. After an agreement was reached, Babbitt asked, “Is there anything else?”
Billy stood up, “Yes, I have one last thing. Do you have the energy to do this? Will you give this a priority? If we’re in these goddamn negotiating sessions, and we reach an impasse, can we call you at home to have you break the impasse? Can we tell your officials to get off their goddamn asses and agree with those Indians and work it out? Don’t have a blockade here! Do you have the energy?” Babbitt said yes.
Under terms of the ESA Secretarial Order signed in June 1997, federal authorities must defer to tribal plans for ninety-five million acres of Indian land when enforcing the ESA. Moreover, the order put systems in place to assist tribes in protecting habitat with the benefit of science and technology. Indian lands, “are not federal public lands,” the agreement states, “and are not subject to federal public land laws.”
“For too long we have failed to recognize the needs of Indian tribes to be consulted and part of the process from the beginning, and the traditional knowledge they can share about species, habitat and conservation,” Babbitt said.
Ironically, the breakthrough agreement was the first secured with Natives in the Indian Treaty Room in the White House Executive Office Building. According to Babbitt’s staff, a peace treaty with the Balkan states was secured in 1947, but “no treaty with Indians ever was.”
“Signing the equivalent of a treaty here today gives new meaning to the name,” Babbitt said. “It is my hope, from this day on, that we will banish forever the traditional treaty process that has been onesided, overbearing and not infrequently unfair.”
Billy stood in a light-colored jacket, accented with a bolo tie, and signed the historic agreement for the tribes.
Meanwhile, the state of Washington requested an exemption from the Endangered Species Act known as a Habitat Conservation Plan. The HCP was historic and pertained to more than one million acres of Washington timber land. Under the HCP, some logging was allowed. The tribes had requested changes and though some were made, others were not. “If that level of timber harvesting was too high and is hard on the runs, there’s not much you can do about it,” says Wilkinson. Babbitt pushed for Billy to attend the accompanying press conference. When the day arrived, the elder was absent. “Where’s Billy?” Babbitt asked. “Billy is not coming. He’s not supporting this,” the secretary was told. Babbitt was not happy.
Three years later, fresh from a U.S. Supreme Court victory that validated the rights of treaty tribes to clams, oysters, and other shellfish, tough Billy emerged yet again. The elder came out swinging for Senator Slade Gorton. With casinos humming, Natives from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic amassed a war chest to unseat their longtime foe.
Their tool was the First American Education Project (FAEP), founded by Billy, Quinault chair Joe De La Cruz, and Ron Allen, then chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “The fight is fair and square. The consignia is clear: ‘Dump Slade 2000,’” blasted Indian Country Today. With Native issues pending in court, the tribes were convinced that ousting Gorton would keep the country from sliding backward. Major tribes and the National Congress of American Indians banded together in an effort to raise $1.5 million and defeat the senator. When a thousand people gathered at the University of Washington, they were filled with rhetoric to send Gorton packing.
To Gorton, public tongue-lashings from Billy and the tribes were nothing new. Still, he refused to back off the mindset that Natives are quasi-sovereigns, not sovereigns. It was a matter of law, Gorton said, not race. The tribes called him General Custer and labeled him an Indian fighter. On the Navajo Reservation, they compared Gorton to Kit Carson, who “rounded up the Navajos in 1863, burned their food supply, cut down their orchards and marched the starving tribe to a holding area in the desert of southern New Mexico.”
The tribes accused Gorton of suffering from a bruised ego after his 1979 defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court and carrying a vendetta against them ever since. “Then, when he did win a case against Indians, such as his victory mandating tribes to tax their non-Indian customers, the tribes ignored the Supreme Court decision, contending tribal sovereignty against state taxation. Apparently, Gorton took his Indian defeats personally,” declared an editorial in Indian Country Today.
In 1995, Gorton had whacked Native federal assistance by nearly 30 percent. In 1997, he appended two riders onto a sweeping $13 billion government spending package that waived Natives’ sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits and forced those earning higher wages to give up federal assistance. “My provision would restore citizens’ constitutional right to due process . . . it would not alter the tribes treaty-protected right to self-governance,” the senator said.
“The primary sponsor of the legislation is a U.S. senator who has made every effort conceivable to destroy the tribes throughout his career,’’ Billy said at that time. The elder and leaders from three hundred tribes met in Washington to oppose Gorton’s provisions. Gorton pulled the provisions after an agreement was reached to take up tribal sovereign immunity during the next session.
Sizing up the political landscape in 1998, Billy surmised, “Whether he knows it or not, Senator Gorton has done the tribes a favor. He brought us together and underscored the need for Congress to get to know us better.”
When 2000 arrived, the tribes were out for blood. Some surprising supporters came to Gorton’s defense. Tom Keefe said the tribes unjustly attacked and slighted Gorton, forgetting the senator’s crucial role in rescuing Wa He Lut Indian School. “Thanks to Slade, they have an award-winning design by one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier architects, Bassetti Associates, state of the art classrooms with computers, and a soaring commons area where Billy Frank’s old canoe hangs on permanent display.”
But the tribes’ massive effort, coupled with a strong campaign by a forty-one-year-old multimillionaire, ended Gorton’s long senatorial run. Maria Cantwell parlayed $10 million of her Real Networks fortune into victory. When the heated contest tipped in her favor, Ron Allen called it a new day:
The defeat of Slade Gorton, and the politics he represented (that of division, blame and castigation of the powerless) is a double victory for Indian Country. First, through the faep, Indian people educated the public about Gorton’s true record and exposed the type of politics he practiced, while aggressively promoting Indian issues and positions in the media.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Gorton’s loss sends a message across the U.S. that politicians who so aggressively fight to destroy Indian sovereignty and mistreat Indian people will do so at their own political peril.
It was a new day for the U.S. Senate to be sure. Cantwell’s victory guaranteed the chamber’s first fifty-fifty party split in more than a century.
The tough guy isn’t always popular. For all Billy’s fame, there are jealousies and resentments in Indian Country. Some feel his contribution is overstated. Plenty of Indian fishermen have stories to tell about the fish wars. Once, when stopping for lunch at the Nisqually Elders Center, an older gentleman sat in the corner looking out the window. “I understand you’ve known Billy for a long, long time. May I talk with you?” a writer asked.
“You don’t want to talk to me about Billy Frank,” the elder grumbled, refusing to say more.
Jim Johnson, a state supreme court justice, says he considers Billy kind of a con man. “He was fun to have around and a character,” Johnson says in retrospect, “but his dad was the real fisherman. I never saw Billy Frank fish.” Next to Gorton, Johnson is a well-known target in Indian Country. The self-assured justice took on the tribes with zeal in representation of the state. “I got shot at more in the AG Office than I ever did in the Army,” Johnson says.
“Just as worthy of celebration is the defeat of Jim Johnson in his bid for position 3 on the Washington State Supreme Court,” Billy declared, after Johnson’s narrow defeat in 2002. “It would have been a travesty for this man to gain a seat on the state’s highest court. . . . The fact is that he is an ‘Indian fighter’—a longtime opponent of Indian rights, as evidenced by his quarter century history of litigating against the tribes in Washington, as well as in other states across the country.”
Once Johnson and Billy found themselves on the same side in a court case, and the two were cruising in a state plane over the Nisqually River, so that Billy could reveal the precarious path of the salmon to the judge. As the plane hovered above Frank’s Landing, Billy joked, “You can drop me off right here! I could land at my house.”
“Don’t!” Johnson hollered. “Billy, they’ll all think I’ve pushed you!” A couple of tough guys shared a laugh.
Next: “You Were Always There for Me”