NISQUALLY - If you’ve ever driven on Interstate 5, just northwest of Olympia, you would likely pass a sign that says the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge. It’s named after a man who for generations left a legacy for preserving environmental and Native American rights.
He was also a father to a son who looks to carry on his legacy.
Whenever Willie Frank III sees the Nisqually River, it brings fond memories.
"My brother and I still fish out here, on the river,” said Frank.
The Nisqually River on this day, quiet and pristine. It’s also a source of life for the Nisqually tribe. And it’s been that way for generations. Chinook salmon, Chum, and Coho salmon are all caught there.
“They’re the salmon that we survived off of,” said Frank.
Still do to this day. But for Willie Frank, remembering what his dad went through to keep the Nisqually tribe fishing here, is something he never takes for granted.
“In the '60s and '70s the state of Washington didn’t believe that the tribes had the right to fish in their usual and accustomed grounds,” said Frank.
During the 1960s and '70s a series of events called the “Fish Wars” took place along the Nisqually and Puyallup rivers. Civil disobedience 'fish-ins' led to several arrests of Nisqually Indian members by the state. It often turned violent.
And Billy Frank Jr., was right in the middle of it.
“My dad went to jail over 50 times here on the Nisqually and exercising his treaty rights,” said Frank.
The treaty right is something that dates back to the mid 1800s, when the relatively new state of Washington made deals with the local Native American tribes. Land, in exchange for the tribal members to fish in their usual locations.
However, these treaties were ignored and even forgotten during the '60s and '70s. With the state game warden's making several arrests, including Billy Frank Jr.
But after protests, and legal wrangling, a federal judge finally reaffirmed the fishing rights, the tribes had been given more than a hundred years before.
“People would ask him, what are you in jail for? And he’d say, well I was fishing. And they’d say, well isn’t that what Indians do? You guys fish,” said Frank.
Billy Frank, Jr. became an ambassador for the Nisqually and local Indian tribes throughout the region. Although the fish wars were over, there remained a battle, as Billy Frank Jr., was a staunch advocate for the environment and the protection of the resources our state has.
Billy Frank Jr. passed away in 2014 at the age of 83, but his legacy lives on not just for tribal members. His son says his dad fought for what's best for everybody who lives here.
"At the end of the day, we’re all Washingtonians. We all need to work together. We all have to be here to protect the resource, to protect the salmon,” said Frank.
Billy Frank, Jr. received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. After the ‘fish wars,’ the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was formed. Billy Frank Jr. served as its chairman for more than 30 years.