SEATTLE — Billy Frank Jr., a tribal fisherman who led the “fish wars” that restored fishing rights and helped preserve a way of life for American Indians in the Northwest four decades ago, died Monday at 83.
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and the Nisqually Tribe near Olympia, Wash., confirmed his death. The cause was not immediately known.
Frank was arrested more than 50 times on suspicion of “illegal fishing” between boyhood and middle age, during what came to be known as the fish wars. Initially driven to fish at night and hide his canoe to avoid authorities who regarded them as poachers, he and others took their fight public in the 1960s, inviting observers to witness their sometimes violent arrests.
Patterned after the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the campaign was part of larger nationwide movement for American Indian rights, including better schooling, free speech and legal protections.
“He was a selfless leader who dedicated his life to the long fight for the rights of our state’s native people,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement. “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.”
The tribes had fished Northwest waters from time immemorial, and treaties promised them access to their “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds in exchange for ceding land to the white settlers in the 1850s.
But Washington state imposed restrictions on fishing last century as dams, logging runoff, pollution and overfishing cut into once-abundant salmon runs. The tribes, many of which had their own fishing regulations, objected to the state imposing its will — especially when some 95 percent of fish harvested in Washington waters were caught by non-Indian fishermen.
Demonstrations staged across the Northwest attracted national attention, and the fishing-rights cause was taken up by celebrities such as the actor Marlon Brando, who was arrested with others in 1964 for illegal fishing from an Indian canoe on the nearby Puyallup River.
Frank, from a family of fishermen in the Nisqually Tribe, was first arrested after salmon fishing in 1945, at age 14 — an event that helped lead him on his long campaign for tribal rights. He and others were repeatedly arrested as they staged “fish-ins” demanding the right to fish in their historical waters.
The protests sometimes turned violent, with activists fighting back against state officials with sticks and paddles, the Washington state history website historylink.org noted.
There were two skirmishes in 1965: when state agents spilled a tribal boat on the Nisqually River, and when they raided the Frank family’s 6-acre property, known as Frank’s Landing, which had become a focal point for fish-ins. Fights also erupted between Indian and non-Indian fishermen.
“We ceded all this land to the United States for a contract to protect our salmon, our way of life, our culture,” Frank told The Associated Press in 2012. “We’re gatherers and we’re harvesters. And they forgot about us. They built their cities, they built their university. They built everything, and they forgot about us tribes.”
The efforts were vindicated in 1974, when U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirmed the 20 tribes’ right to half of the fish harvest — and the nation’s obligation to honor the old treaties. At the time, non-Indian fishermen dominated the commercial fishing industry, leaving less than 5 percent of the catch for the tribes.
The ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, effectively made the Northwest tribes co-managers of the resource and laid the foundation for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission — a coalition of salmon-treaty tribes of which Frank served as chairman.
The decision had a sweeping impact on other tribes in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere as it triggered other treaty rights cases and changed attitudes toward American Indians, said Richard Whitney, who was appointed a technical fisheries adviser by Boldt after the decision.
“The whole issue of indigenous rights became more prominent after the decision,” said the retired University of Washington professor.
Over the next 40 years, Frank continued to advocate for tribal fishing rights and protection of natural resources, including salmon. Only weeks ago, he and other tribal members met with federal environmental regulators to push for more stringent water quality standards to reduce the amount of pollution that accumulates in fish. The standards would especially protect native people who eat large amounts of salmon and other fish from Washington state waters.
Merle Hayes, fisheries policy liaison with the Suquamish Tribe, has known Frank for 25 years.
“He’s been so inspiring to all the tribes,” Hayes said. “He believed in the work that he was doing. He will be missed by the tribal people and people who believe in the resources that he so wanted to protect.
“When Billy spoke, people listened.”