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Puget Sound Wildlife Refuge Renamed in Honor of Tribal Leader Billy Frank Jr.

January 12, 2016

When new signs go up on the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge this year, changing it to bear the name of Billy Frank Jr., he won't be there to see it.

But his son takes solace in knowing that a lot of other people will.

"People will drive through the Nisqually area, a stone's throw from where my dad was raised, and see my dad's name for the rest of time," Willie Frank, Billy's son, said. "He's never going to be gone."

The Native American treaty-rights advocate died in 2014. Since then, Frank has received a string of posthumous recognition. President Obama signed the Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act last month, renaming the refuge after the late activist.

Frank also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Washington State's Medal of Merit. The Nisqually tribe recently renamed a community center after him and declared March 9 — Frank's birthday — "Billy Frank Jr. Day."

"I just wish he was here to see all of this," Willie Frank said.

In 1854, tribes in south Puget Sound signed the Medicine Creek Treaty, trading a portion of their native land to the U.S. government in exchange for cash, reservation land tracts and the recognition of fishing, hunting and gathering rights.

A century later, Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank Jr. championed those fishing rights as the Washington State Fish and Game Department cracked down on off-reservation tribal fishing.

Frank was first arrested for "illegal" fishing at 14 years old. He protested for three decades, organizing "fish-ins" and getting arrested at least 50 times before a federal judge upheld the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1974. The decision affirmed the tribes' right to catch half the state's fish harvest.

"I wasn't a policy guy," Frank famously said. "I was a 'getting arrested' guy."

The Nisqually River Delta received federal protection as a wildlife refuge the same year. In 2009 Frank helped promote measures to remove dikes at the refuge and return the estuary to salmon habitat.

"Salmon can now use the estuary to feed and rest and grow and go out into the big world," said refuge manager Glynnis Nakai.

Nakai will help oversee the creation of educational materials and a memorial to educate refuge visitors about Billy Frank Jr. and the Medicine Creek Treaty. She began working at the refuge shortly before Frank died.

"I'm disappointed because I was in the process of scheduling a meeting with him, but it never happened," Nakai said. "At least I can savor his stories."

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Billy Frank Jr. championed Northwest tribes' right to half of Washington state's harvestable fish.

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Ken Christensen

Ken Christensen is the EarthFix associate video producer for KCTS 9, the public television station in Seattle. He began his journalism career at Crain’s New York Business, a weekly newspaper covering business and politics in the five boroughs, where he reported breaking news and wrote features on small business. Ken later helped launch the publication’s web video unit as its first producer. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

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