Billy Frank

Many of us who came of age in Seattle during the late 1970s remember the name Billy Frank and the phrase,  “The Boldt Decision,” as much as Watergate or  Viet Nam. Mr. Frank and U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt  brought forth a new way of looking at natural resources in our region. Yet, it was not just about fish. It was also about civil rights. The cultural and ethnic survival of the Pacific Northwest Indian tribes depended their ancient right to fish for salmon. If the salmon went away so would the people.

It all started in 1945 after so much had already been taken from the tribes.

Frank, a member of the Nisqually Indian tribe, was arrested for fishing outside his home on property his family had held for generations. Fishing for salmon was regulated by a state agency.  FRank did not have a permit. Through dozens of arrests, protests  and the court battles that followed, the often imperfect but passionate leader taught the rest of us the notion — long held by indigenous peoples — that the health of the environment is intertwined with the health of people.

The salmon sustain the tribes, both in flesh and spirit.  The Boldt decision ensured that the Indian tribes of this region would be guaranteed the right to fish — and that those fish would be protected and nurtured for the benefit of the tribes. Long damaged by dams and development, rebuilding fish stocks required that rivers, streams and the ecosystems that nurture them must also be protected

The Boldt decision was part of a growing  wave of  environmental protection measures that came to the fore.  Like it or not, we now take these laws for granted. On Mercer Island, the State of Washington’s Shoreline Management laws regulate the use of the lake front in order to protect young fish who linger on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

From minimizing waste to the warming of the planet, we have begun to appreciate that what effects our food or our weather is important to our own health.

The service for Frank, who died on May 5, was held last Sunday. More than 20 speakers including Sen. Maria Cantwell, joined 6,000 mourners to honor him.


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