Washington state will celebrate an indigenous hero in a rare display of political consensus

Indigenous icon Billy Frank Jr will be properly honoured at last, writes Andrew Buncombe

Tuesday 06 April 2021 14:28
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<p>Billy Frank Jr</p>

Billy Frank Jr

In how many ways should the late Billy Frank Jr be remembered – as a staunch environmentalist, an activist for native rights, a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

He was all of these and more, and now a statue of Frank Jr, a member of the Nisqually people, is to be commissioned and put on display in Washington DC.

In an unusual moment of political consensus, the upper chamber of the state legislature in Olympia voted 44-5 for Frank Jr, to be one of the two statues to represent Washington at the National Statuary Hall Collection, located in the South Wing of the US Capitol.

The hall, which was established in the middle of the 19th Century, displays 2 statues of notable deceased residents of each of the 50 states. At the moment, the two spots occupied by Washington state contain statues of Marcus Whitman, a 19th-century doctor and missionary, and Mother Joseph, a Catholic nun who founded hospitals and schools after moving here from Canada. The statues are usually commissioned and paid for by private donations rather than state funds.

Because Whitman has been on display longer, his statue will be transferred back to Washington state and put on display here, possibly in an official building in Olympia, the state capital.

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That will make room for a statue of Frank Jr, celebrated for his activism during the so-called “Fish Wars” of the 1960s and 70s when indigenous tribes embarked on acts of civil disobedience to try and force the authorities to recognise fishing rights, and who chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years.

A veteran of the Korean War, he died in 2014 at the age of 83. (His father reportedly lived to be 104, while his mother died in her 90s.)

The legislation in Washington state was sponsored by Representative Debra Lekanoff, a Democrat, and the only Native American currently serving in the state legislature.

“Billy was a dedicated advocate for equality, justice and environmental protections, and his statue will serve to honour his legacy and as a call to action for all who see it,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “A call to continue the fight for justice and to leave our world a better place for the generations to come.”

Monday’s vote was an emotional affair by all accounts, perhaps because the move was passed with such bipartisan support.

“This is really an emotional moment,” state senator Sam Hunt said on the floor of the chamber, according to the News Tribune. “Billy Frank was a longtime friend of many of us, and a hero for many of us in the state of Washington and the country.”

Governor Jay Inslee now has to sign the legislation into law, write to the National Statuary Hall Collection of the plan, and liaise with the estate of Whitman over the return of that statue.

He will surely wish to honour someone whom Barack Obama pointed out had repeatedly put the well-being of the tribal communities of the Pacific Northwest, ahead of his own.

“Billy was arrested more than 50 times in his fight to protect tribal fishing rights and save the salmon that had fed his family for generations. He was spat on, shot at, chased and clubbed and cast as an outlaw,” Obama said in a 2015 ceremony at the White House to posthumously award the medal of freedom.

“But Billy kept fighting. Because he knew he was right. And in 1974, a federal judge agreed, honouring the promises made to Northwest tribes more than a century before.”

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