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updated 1/5/2004 4:04:17 PM ET 2004-01-05T21:04:17

Long before the Wounded Knee siege, even before the Alcatraz takeover, the modern Indian resurgence began in the Pacific Northwest with the struggle to regain treaty fishing rights.

In celebration of this history and of a long life devoted first to resistance and then conciliation, Indian Country Today is giving the first annual American Indian Visionary Award to Nisqually tribal elder and visionary Billy Frank Jr.

The award will have its inaugural presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26. Each year from now on, according to the official invitation, it will honor an individual "who embodies the highest qualities and attributes of leadership in defending the foundations of American Indian freedom."

But the ceremony, said the invitation, "will not only honor a prominent national American Indian figure, but also chronicle, illuminate and encourage, for this and future generations, the dedication that is required to be made by American Indian people who, every day, defend tribal freedoms."

Starting at the age of 14 in 1945, Frank was arrested by police more than 50 times in the Northwest "fishing wars." As a much-honored adult, he now serves as chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, presiding over the restoration of the salmon essential to tribal tradition.

Frank’s influence goes far beyond fisheries, however. He is also a leading spirit for the WaHeLut Indian School at Frank’s Landing in Washington state. The school, with 128 students from 22 nations, is preserving cultural knowledge for the next generation.

Frank’s father, Willie Frank, the last full-blood Nisqually, died in 1983 at 104. Nearby is the Treaty Tree, where the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed in 1854. As a traditional fishing site, Frank’s Landing endured years of police raids in the 1960s and early ‘70s, until the historic 1974 Boldt decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt, upheld treaty fishing rights. The school displays Billy Frank’s 25-foot canoe and carved oars that were confiscated by state game wardens in 1964 and not returned until after the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the Boldt decision in 1979.

In a millennium observation, Frank recalled that his father witnessed the change from the 19th to the 20th century as a young man living on the Nisqually River. "He was born in a wooden longhouse to parents who had lived on the same river throughout their lives. The heritage of the Nisqually has been passed from generation to generation through thousands of years.

"At the close of the 20th century, I am striving to help teach my own sons all I can of our heritage. I’m doing this because I know it is their link to their traditional home on the Nisqually, and their very existence as Indians."

Frank, born in 1931, began to make his own contribution to this tradition in "fish-ins" and other protests through the 1960s and early ‘70s, which earned him the name of "the last renegade of the Nisqually." But with the victory in the Boldt decision, he realized that something more was needed. He devoted the next phase of his life to seeking conciliation and "cooperative management" in reviving the natural resources of the Northwest. He argued that "common-sense compromise" rather than court intervention would produce more effective solutions.

He co-founded the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 Washington tribes in negotiating with state and federal officials. The results have been tribally driven salmon restoration programs which have received national honors. According to the Biography Resource Center, his "peace-making program has been modeled in several states, resulting in solutions to numerous natural resource conflicts."

He has extended his efforts to a variety of environmental issues. In 1976, he worked with the Washington state government and the timber industry to change logging and spraying practices. As a result the bald eagle population increased dramatically in the Nisqually watershed. In 1984, he helped to found the Northwest Renewable Resources Center, which mediates conflicts in six states.

He was a convener and leader in Washington state’s Timber/Fish/Wildlife agreement and its Water Resource Planning Project, which resulted in the "Chelan Agreement." These consensus agreements on cooperative management were subsequently endorsed by the state legislature.

In 1992, he received the Albert Schweitzer Award for his "achievements as a mediator between opposing interest groups and as a protector of the fragile cultural and environmental heritage that all humanity share."

He has brought this spirit to other arenas, as well. When Washington state prepared to celebrate its centennial in 1989, some Native sentiment opposed participation because of the long history of conflict with the state. Frank agreed to serve as a member of the Centennial Commission and as chairman of its Native American Committee, to protect the interests of the state’s Indians. He argued that the Commission should not celebrate the previous 100 years of tribal relations, but "the changes to come."

At the same time, he has maintained a strong voice for Indian interests. In a January 2003 column, he celebrated the emergence of tribes as "a political force to be reckoned with." He praised successful tribal efforts through the First American Education Project to defeat an "Indian fighter" candidate for the state Supreme Court.

But he offers Indian leadership to non-Natives in the advance to the new millennium. In his reflection on the end of the century, he wrote, "If non-Indians can learn to value the heritage of this land, and to teach these things to their children, there is hope that my grandchildren will see a better life at the confluence of centuries to come."

© 2013 Indian Country Today. All rights reserved.

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