BEING FRANK: The nation and the Pacific Northwest in particular lost a tremendous leader this week with the passing of Billy Frank Jr., elder of the Nisqually Tribe and influential chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Frank was the charismatic voice of Northwest tribes fighting to exercise their treaty rights and, ultimately, voice for the fish themselves and all things they touch through their lifecycle.
“He was a great Native American, but became a great environmentalist,” former Governor Mike Lowry said. ”He explained that the real reason salmon were disappearing was the overcutting of forests, pollution and the silting of streams, and that was the real danger to those for whom fishing was a way of life.”
Frank fought in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to protect forests and salmon streams from excessive timber harvest and development. He battled in court, in endless public meetings and in private conversations with anyone who would listen. He wrote opinion columns thick with compelling data and lore. With his soft voice, strong handshake and endless stories, he disarmed senators and presidents.
His death at 83 came as a great shock to the many organizers, researchers, field workers and policymakers who had shared a Coast Salish dinner with Frank and other tribal leaders at the First Nation’s Keynote Address at the 2014 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle last week. The three-day conference, hosted in part by Western Washington University and the Puget Sound Partnership, presented dozens of papers to hundreds of attendees on the perilous decline of this unique coastal basin. Built around a theme that this sea is “Our Shared Responsibility,” conference hosts set a special place this year for the Salish Sea Tribes and First Nations. Attendees were welcomed by Suquamish Chief Leonard Forsman and the plenary keynote address was given by Grand Chief Ed Day of the Ti’azt’en Nation.
Frank, too, spoke powerfully of the need to fight—even at great personal cost—for a way of life, an understanding, that can serve many generations. Through his long life, Frank fought hard. He was arrested more than 50 times, in what must be a record for civil rights leadership, until authorities recognized his right to fish. As the head of tribal fisheries, Frank extended that understanding to the fish themselves and their rights to abundant cold water and a clean ecosystem—their capacity to spawn and what they endure through that a fierce metaphor for survival at tremendous cost.
“When you add it all up, it’s a long time to go to jail for something you believe in,” Frank once commented with slow smile.
“He was a selfless leader who dedicated his life to the long fight for the rights of our state’s native people,” Gov. Jay Inslee agreed.
“Billy was a champion of tribal rights, of the salmon, and the environment. He did that even when it meant putting himself in physical danger or facing jail.
“Billy never wavered in his conviction and passion. He stressed to me the spiritual and cultural relationship that indigenous people have with salmon,” Inslee said.
“We lost one of the greatest American leaders we have known when Billy Frank Jr. passed,” Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas) noted. “I have known Billy for years and so very much appreciated his total and complete dedication to his people, our state and our planet. I will sincerely miss his wisdom, advice (solicited or not), his incredible humor and his hugs. Billy Frank’s incredible influence on the Salmon Nation, our state and the United States will be everlasting.”
In one of his final columns, Frank sketched the next big policy battle at the state level as industry lobbyists tinker with the fish consumption rates set for Washingtonians, recommending a portion of just one 8-ounce fillet per person per month (despite ample evidence residents consume 24 times that amount) as a means of fudging cancer risks. In other words, as Frank explained, “the lower the number, the less protective water quality standards need to be to protect us from poisons in our water.
“The problem is,” Frank noted, “that the state’s current rate of 6.5 grams per day is one of the lowest fish consumption rates in the nation. It’s lower even than states like Iowa, despite the fact that Washington has abundant seafood and one of the largest populations of fish and shellfish consumers in the United States.”
The North Sound Baykeeper and other interested groups have also taken up Frank’s battle, sending the governor a letter concerned that “Washington’s human health water quality standards are among the nation’s least protective. As a result, the state is not doing its job to prevent cancer-causing pollutants from entering our state’s rivers and Puget Sound.
“Fish advisories telling people to limit or not eat fish are not a fair or healthy solution,” they wrote.
“We think the cancer risk rate should stay right where it is, and the fish consumption rate should be at least 175 grams per day,” Frank agreed. “The choice really boils down to whether we want a pollution-based economy or one that puts people and their health ahead of profits.”
It’s a choice he spent his life defending. Without him, the task falls to us.
Former Whatcom County health officer Dr. Frank James will lead a discussion on fish consumption and human rights at 6:30pm Tues., May 13 at the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center, 1220 Bay Street. Sen. Ranker will be at Village Books May 14 and 21 from 9am to noon to hear your concerns for policy and action.
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