Billy Frank Jr., Tell Your Story

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“When Billy Frank Jr. told his story, he was a fisherman trying to do what was right. But in the story of our state, he is a leader who inspired a movement for justice, and dedicated his life to collaborating with others in order to safeguard our environment for everyone. When visitors come to the wildlife refuge, I want them to sense the spirit of Billy Frank Jr. and the work of all of the tribes to defend and preserve our beautiful land and resources. Without that context, the background and history of our area gets lost. This is a way to preserve not just the refuge, but the stories surrounding it.” - Rep. Denny Heck


Hidden away on a remote and inaccessible corner of the Refuge stands the jagged stump of a fallen tree. Even in this broken condition, the tree’s remains are dynamic and formidable. The storm that broke the tree is several years passed, and the surrounding forest and marshland is tranquil but for the calling of birds. But this sense of tranquility is thin. There is a heaviness in the air, and tidal currents churn the surrounding water into dark currents and eddies that perfectly reflect the profound nature of events this tree witnessed. At this site, the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed, a brief event that would have ramifications that continue to affect the course of events to this day.

Over the coming months, you may notice a series of changes taking place as the Refuge updates publications and signs to reflect a new name. On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed into law the “Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act”, which officially changed the name of the Refuge to Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, the Act creates the Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial to commemorate the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 between the US Government and the leaders of the Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island Indian Tribes. This treaty was signed in a grove of trees located along present day McAllister Creek within the Refuge boundary. The “Treaty Tree” stump is the last vestige of this grove.

On the day of the treaty’s signing, the tribes showed up dressed in their finest clothes, recognizing the significance of the occasion, hoping it would be the beginning of a respectful relationship. In comparison, tribal members felt the US Government delegation appeared relatively ambivalent, with a sense of entitlement that left a lasting bad impression. Chief Leschi, who had been appointed by the governor to represent the Tribe, had tried to negotiate for better and more appropriate reservation lands. But his efforts were unsuccessful, and after the signing the tribes had given up 2.24 million acres of land in exchange for three reservations. The Nisqually Tribe, whose culture is integrally connected to salmon and traditional grounds, found themselves on a piece of land away from the river that was rocky and useless for meeting their needs. As a result of this bad treatment, Leschi led a group in rebellion that resulted in a year of skirmishes. Ultimately, Leschi and his brother, Quiemuth, were captured. Quiemuth was murdered in the Governor’s office, and Leschi was executed by hanging. As a result of this sacrifice, the tribe got a reservation better suited to the Tribe’s needs: it is larger and is located along the Nisqually River.

The treaty had promised payments to the Tribes over twenty years as well as access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds, where the natural resources would be shared “in common with the citizens of the territory.” The terms of the treaty were, unfortunately, largely ignored – a trend that continued for over a century until Billy Frank Jr., a disenchanted tribal fisherman, became dedicated to the treaty rights cause. He brought matters to a head through a grassroots campaign and through acts of civil disobedience. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he was arrested over 50 times for fishing on the Nisqually River, utilizing traditional methods as guaranteed in the Medicine Creek Treaty. These acts of civil disobedience forced the issue to the US Supreme Court in 1974, where Judge George Hugo Boldt issued the landmark Boldt Decision which found in favor of the Tribes, upholding the terms of the original treaty. The Decision marked a turning point in legal treatment of tribes.

This decision had a huge impact on policy. In addition to helping to preserve and fortify Nisqually tribal culture (through salmon fishing rights), it also gave tribes throughout the Northwest a greater voice in natural resource management. The Boldt Decision interpreted the Treaty’s language, establishing the Tribe’s right to half of all the harvestable salmon returning to Western Washington each year. Consequently, the tribes now co-manage salmon fisheries with the State of Washington. The importance of this decision to environmental policy and the influence of Billy Frank Jr.'s subsequent accomplishments cannot be overstated. He became the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which had been created in 1975 to support natural resource management related to fisheries. He held the position from 1981 until 2014, a period of more than 30 years.

Billy Frank Jr. died in 2014, but his influence endures. During his life, he had been recognized with many prestigious awards, and in November 2015 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. His legacy will truly be the great and positive impact he had on the cause of justice and on the natural environment, a benefit which will be felt for generations. Representative Denny Heck, who introduced the Tell Your Story Act said, “I loved Billy Frank. He was one of the greatest men I have met in my life. He is our Martin Luther King, our Desmond Tutu, our Nelson Mandela.” It is a great honor that the Refuge will now be his namesake.