In posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Billy Frank Jr. in 2015, President Barack Obama provided a quick synopsis of the activist’s impact: “He saved the salmon that had fed his family for generations,” Obama said. “He was spat on, shot at, chased, clubbed and cast as an outlaw, but Billy kept fighting because he knew he was right.”
In other words, Frank is worthy of representing Washington in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. That is the purpose of House Bill 1372 in the Legislature, seeking to replace a statue of Marcus Whitman with one of Frank, who died in 2014 at the age of 83.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and budget concerns and racial inequity, legislators this year have plenty of issues that demand their attention. A bill regarding a statue in Washington, D.C., is not a top priority. But honoring Frank would have both a practical and symbolic impact.
Frank’s work to bridge the divide between Native Americans and the white power structure remains relevant, as does his environmental leadership throughout the latter half of the 20th century. And his inclusion would reflect the diversity of our state and a continuing need for inclusive representation of all our citizens.
“There’s no one better than Billy Frank Jr., who stood with all of you,” Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Skagit Valley, said Monday in introducing the bill. “He has stood in the rural areas of Western Washington and watched the rivers flow. … He has stood in almost every one of your rivers and wished for the salmon to come home.”
Frank, a member of the Nisqually tribe, led grassroots efforts promoting tribal fishing rights on the Nisqually River. He was chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for nearly 30 years, promoting cooperative management of natural resources and pressing for the upholding of treaties.
Lt. Gov. Denny Heck this week called Frank “perhaps the greatest consensus builder and peacemaker ever” around the environmental issues of cool, clean water, healthy salmon runs and preserving natural resources.
Each state is allowed up to two representations in Statuary Hall, and a depiction of Whitman has been there since 1953. Whitman was an early white settler in Washington, founding a mission near what is now Walla Walla. He also is commemorated by the presence of Whitman County in Eastern Washington and Whitman College in Walla Walla.
Washington’s other statue in the Capitol is of Mother Joseph, who built schools and hospitals throughout the region during the 19th century and has close ties to Vancouver. She has been represented in Washington, D.C., since 1980.
Admittedly, we might feel differently if the legislative bill sought to displace Mother Joseph in the Capitol; we are as prone to provincialism as anybody else.
But the selection of Frank is an inspired choice. Rather than being viewed as trying to erase the history of settlers to the Northwest, it should be recognized as a modernization of how we view our region and an awareness that history is not confined to 150 years ago.
Frank represents a modern Washington that has continued to evolve; hopefully it always will. As Heck said, if the statue is erected, “every single time any person from Washington visits our nation’s Capitol, they will stop, they will look up, and they will stand tall and proud because Billy Frank was a great man.”
In addition to all their other concerns this year, lawmakers should find time to approve a statue of Billy Frank Jr. in the nation’s Capitol.