Billy caught his first salmon at age eleven and the nuances of fishing passed down another generation. “My dad always told me to prepare for the salmon coming back. Don’t get caught in a hurry. Have it done in advance. He told me about a guy cutting a net in the dark and stabbing himself in the stomach. ‘Don’t be like that,’ he told me.”
A lifetime on the river taught him the techniques of an expert fisherman. “When you set a gillnet, you have got to have a backwater coming back up the river. . . . You can’t just set a net out in swift water and expect to catch any fish.” Billy’s ancestors trapped fish in weirs, underwater fences made of wooden stakes. They would remove the traps from time to time, sending schools of salmon off to spawn. Billy mostly caught salmon in gillnets. He engineered his own catchand- release philosophy—catch what you need, and release what you don’t. “I always tell my kids, ‘If a salmon gets away from you, don’t cuss. Don’t say anything. That salmon, he’s going up the river. He’s producing more salmon for you and all of us. The salmon—he’s coming home. And we’ve got to take care of his home. He journeys out there for six, seven years clear to the Arctic Ocean and then he comes back clear to the Nisqually River.’”
Nature was not Billy’s only teacher. “My parents lived a long time. Dad lived to 104 and Mom, I think, was 95. And they were with us for that long of time, teaching us.”
“My dad would put us all in the boat,” Billy recalls. “All he had was oars, never had no motor of any kind. We poled up and down the river. We poled clean up to the reservation. We poled all over. We went out with the tide and come in with the tide. It was a different life for us.
“He’d take us all down to the mouth of the river and we’d flounder fish, all the family. We’d walk up the river, and get into the log jam, and get logs and rafts, and come down the river, all of us. This was the playground of all of us, this whole river. Those were long days, those days in the summertime.”
In the heat of summer, Billy slogged it out in berry fields and tree farms. When the leaves turned, he climbed back into a twenty-twofoot shovel-nose cedar canoe and set a net clean across the river. Billy took his cue from the sun or the tide and headed home to butcher fish.
When Willie Frank chaired the Nisqually Tribe and sat on the council, his son absorbed his gravitas and ethic. “My dad—he took me wherever he went,” Billy says. “We’d walk to meetings, you know. We’re packing a box. The secretary has a little box of papers that she keeps the minutes of everything. We never had no building like Nisqually has got up there now. We just had each other’s home that we all just kind of went to and gathered in them homes and kept the business going. But, see, I walked with Dad, listening to him. We’ve got to keep the government going.”
He learned the creation story from his father. Willie rejected the whites’ religion and entire system of values. “Dad said the Catholic Church was full of B.S.,” Billy recalls, “that most of all the Catholic Church was. It just comes out of him like that. They tried to make him pray all the time [in boarding school].
“The Creator is the one who brought us here. There’s all kinds of creation stories and how we came here. The Creator gave us everything we have. That was his belief, and Mom and all of us. The Creator put that salmon there for us to survive. And all the shellfish, and this clean water, and our medicines, and all of our food, our animals. We respected all of them. We took their life because it was given to us for our life.”