In yesterday’s chapter we were able to read about the father of Billy Franks, the man who dedicated his life to saving the traditional life of his tribe, the Nisqually. As we saw, the same fire that ran through the veins of Billy Frank, ran through his father’s veins as well.
Today, in the second chapter, we can see the very beginnings of Billy Franks.
Chapter Two-“I live Here”
Billy Frank Jr. took his first breath on March 9, 1931, six days after President Herbert Hoover signed “The Star-Spangled Banner” into law as the national anthem. One day, Billy would defend his country; then he’d spend a lifetime challenging the nation to rise to its ideals.
The Nisqually Indian grew up in a small house on the river, not far from the historic Medicine Creek Treaty council grounds. Most people wouldn’t have called the Franks rich, but Billy’s father often said they had everything and more outside their back window. “When the tide is out, the table is set.” The Nisqually River meandered through Billy’s backyard, fanning out over the land and flowing into Puget Sound. Nearby, fishermen landed canoes and loaded salmon onto scales, exchanging stories and laughs.
The town of Nisqually was small, “a couple of gas stations and a tavern,” recalls Herman Dillon, a longtime family friend. The future chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians met Billy sometime between sliding into first base and plunging into the river. “You’d think we were a couple of monkeys climbing trees,” Dillon jokes. They played a lot of baseball. They spent even more time on the river. And they fished.
Most of Billy’s indelible childhood memories are set in the natural world. He grew up a fisherman, like his ancestors. On the same river, in much the same manner, he made a clean incision straight down the belly of the salmon, removing its insides and slime. “We’d clean ‘em and smoke ‘em until they’re dry,” Billy remembers. “Mom and Dad, you know, they were smoking fish all the time. The salmon is an important part of us—who we are.”
Billy never depended on a calendar. Nature tracked time. As surely as the rain poured down on Seattle, the salmon returned and proclaimed the coming of fall. In December, the late-running chum raced to spawning grounds after three or four years out at sea. You could always spot chum, known as dog salmon for their canine-like teeth.
Long before he walked to a one-room schoolhouse, Billy became a student of nature. He learned the life cycles of the different species of salmon. Salmon are resilient to be sure. But they depend on intricacies of nature to survive. The temperature and health of the water, the force of its flows, and the state of gravel beds all take part in creating the delicate habitat of the fish.
Billy learned the Nisqually River, the way it meanders across the heartland and changes course through the years. He swam every stretch of that river growing up. “The river moves. Our river isn’t like the Puyallup River. . . . Our river moves across that valley and back and forth. One year you’ll have a place to set net and the next you won’t have a place to set.” He learned the importance of medicinal plants like Oregon grapes, wild cherry, and prince’s pine, an evergreen plant that relieves stomach pain when it’s dried.
Early on, Tahoma (or Rainier), the great water source of the Nisqually watershed, mesmerized Billy. He relished the sight of the icicles that dangle like daggers inside the mountain’s ice caves. “Oh, God almighty. You know, we pray to the mountain every day. We wake up and pray to the mountain. It was a wonder of the world. It’s just this magical place that the Nisqually River comes from. And water is still coming out.”