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Treaty and Fishing Rights Activist Billy Frank: the Fish Wars

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On a dark night in 1945, 14-year-old Billy Frank, Jr., a citizen of the Nisqually tribe, walked down to the water’s edge on his family’s property, Frank’s Landing, on the Nisqually River to fish for salmon. He cast his net that night and the following morning came down to pull in the catch and butcher the fish, and game wardens arrested him. In recounting the story, Frank said he told them, “Leave me alone… I fish here! I live here!”

As a Nisqually citizen, Frank was entitled by the Medicine Creek Treaty, also known as the Treaty between the United States of America and the Nisqually and other bands of Indians, to fish on these lands. Frank said that he was exercising his traditional rights. His arrest started a lifetime of activism.

Photo of Billy Frank wearing a white shirt, Native American jewelry, and a bolo tie
             Billy Frank Jr., November 13, 2014 [Photo by Flickr user Ecotrust. Used under CC 2.0]
The 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty, made between the Nisqually and eight other tribes and the United States, took away some of the Nisqually’s traditional lands. However, the Nisqually, Puyallup, Steilacoom, Squawskin, S’Homamish, Stehchass, T’Peeksin, Squi-aitl, and Sa-heh-wamish tribes and various other bands of Indians, insisted on retaining fishing, hunting, gathering and pasturing rights in their area. Billy Frank was well aware of the treaty rights; his father, Willie Frank, was born only 25 years after the treaty was signed, and kept and relayed oral history to Billy about their traditions, the treaty, and the land, throughout his life.  Willie Frank Sr. frequently said, “When the tide is high, the table is set”, and the right to fish was critical to the survival of the Nisqually, Puyallup, and other local tribes represented in the treaty. The salmon, fish, and shellfish that they fished for and harvested both fed them and sustained their cultural practices and health (Wilkinson, 101).

However, in the 20th century, the state of Washington was passing laws which affected the abilities and rights of Indigenous people to fish. During the late 1940s and 1950s, the state grew the non-Indian salmon take by providing an annual commercial licenses for $15 with no daily limit on catch. This change led to a seven-times increase in the number of commercial fishermen (Wilkinson, 30). Hydroelectric projects on the upper Nisqually were built by the City of Tacoma and Centralia (Wilkinson, 30). The timber industry, the local housing boom, and the use of pesticides in the growing agricultural industry all contributed to the decrease in the number of healthy fish. The 1960s non-Indian commercial Chinook salmon harvest decreased by over 50% compared to the 1940s fishing harvest (Wilkinson, 31). Meanwhile, local law enforcement beat, arrested, and fined Frank and other Nisqually and members of local tribes on multiple occasions for fishing on their treaty lands.

Willie Frank, Sr. went to court for fishing rights in the 1930s and successfully won an injunction to keep the state from harassing Indigenous fishers. The injunction lasted from 1937-1944, but ended a year before Billy Frank’s first arrest as a 14-year-old. The number of arrests, and the associated violence, as well as injunctions filed by the state against Nisqually, Puyallup, Muckleshoot, Quileute, and others, increased greatly in the 1960s and 1970s. Game wardens and law enforcement would take the nets of the Indigenous fishers, and take the fish they caught in the nets as well. The state claimed these enforcements were for conservation, but Billy Frank and other Indigenous fishers argued they were taking less than 5 percent of the catch (a figure later confirmed by estimates), compared to catch taken by sport and commercial fishermen (Wilkinson, 59). In the 1960s, Hank Adams, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes and a resident of Frank’s Landing, worked with Billy Frank and his sister, Maiselle Bridges, on the protests that Adams organized, including the demonstration of 2,000 protestors in Olympia in 1964. Adams also arranged for Marlon Brando to protest in a fishing boat at Frank’s Landing, and for Charles Kuralt to come out to Frank’s Landing to cover the fishing and treaty rights protests for Kuralt’s CBS show (Wilkinson, 45). In October 1965, local Indigenous peoples held a fish-in at Frank’s Landing that lasted for 6 weeks. On September 9, 1970, police attacked a fishing camp on the Puyallup River and arrested 55 adults and five children, using tear gas and clubs to break up the fishing camp.

Ultimately the Fish Wars led to legal action. In 1970, the United States filed United States v. Washington, 384 F. 312 (W.D. Washington 1974) on behalf of the Hoh, Makah, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Quileute, Skokomish, Lummi, Quinault, Sauk-Suiattle, Squaxin Island, Stillaguamish, Upper Skagit, and Yakama Nations. The judge, George Hugo Boldt, had considerable experience, but not with Indian law. Billy Frank, some of his co-protesters, and several elders testified including Billy’s dad, 95-year-old Willie Frank, Sr. On February 12, 1974, Judge Boldt found that the Indigenous fishers were entitled to 50% of the harvestable catch, with 50% for non-native fishers, and that Indigenous people could fish in their “usual and accustomed places“. However, the Boldt Decision was difficult to enforce. Slade Gorton, Washington State attorney general, advised the public that they did not have to follow the ruling because the state would get it overturned. The case continued to be challenged in court. Of Judge Boldt’s decision, Billy Frank said, “That judge listened to all of us. He let us tell our stories, right there in federal court. He made a decision, he interpreted the treaty, and he gave us a tool to help save the salmon (Wilkinson, 62).”

Frank’s actions saved the salmon too. He was arrested more than 50 times in the course of his activism. He said, “We’re going to survive, and we’re going to be healthy”, and his willingness to put himself on the line, to protest, and to continue to argue on behalf of treaty rights and the salmon, was the work of his lifetime.

In 2015, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was renamed the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in honor of his service and activism.


Ε99.Ν74 Η44 2012  Heffernan, Trova. Where the Salmon Run: the life and legacy of Billy Frank Jr.

E99.N74 W55 2000 Wilkinson, Charles F. Messages from Frank’s Landing : a story of salmon, treaties, and the Indian way / by Charles Wilkinson ; photo essay by Hank Adams ; maps by Diane Sylvain.

Burns, Carol. As Long as the Rivers Run. Internet Archive, 1971. Accessed 2 November, 2022.

E99.N74 U65  United States. Treaty between the United States of America and the Nisqually and other bands of Indians.

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  1. I was Billy Frank Jr’s “PR guy” for more than 30 years. As such I thank you for this well written story. It is critically important for Billy’s legacy to be remembered and passed on to this and future generations. Billy truly was a great warrior and his story is both historic and meaningful. That being said I think it’s important to at least mention the fact that, post-Boldt, Billy’s life as a warrior encompassed an additional realm. He became a champion of peace and a giant advocate for cooperation. He never lost his ability and willingness to fight for tribal rights and the need to protect and restore the great Northwest salmon resource. But he also knew the ultimate path to the achievement of that goal is one of co-management and cooperation. It’s that path that led to the restoration of the Nisqually estuary, and restoration in other locations. It is the path that must be taken to achieve other direly needed objectives as well, though it must be understood that, as Billy often said, “We need to hold out one hand in friendship, but always be willing to make a fist with the other.”

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