Just a day before what would have been Billy Frank Jr.’s 90th birthday, the Washington state House of Representatives passed a bill that would place a statue of the beloved environmentalist and Native American icon in the National Statuary Hall.
House Bill 1372 passed in bipartisan fashion 92-5 Monday and now moves on to the state Senate for consideration. The legislation was introduced earlier this session by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow.
“Billy was a dedicated advocate for equality, justice and environmental protections, and his statue will serve to honor his legacy and as a call to action for all who see it,” wrote Lekanoff, the only Native American currently serving in the state Legislature, in a recent post to Facebook. “A call to continue the fight for justice and to leave our world a better place for the generations to come. Now on to the Senate!”
Among those who voted nay were Reps. Jeremie Dufault, Brad Klippert, Bob McCaslin, Robert Sutherland and Brandon Vick. Rep. Jake Fey was counted as excused from the vote.
If passed, HB 1372 would place Frank Jr.’s bust among the small number of Native Americans to be displayed in the National Statuary Hall, located at the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
The collection at the National Statuary Hall consists of 100 statues — two for each state. Frank Jr.’s statue would replace that of 19th century missionary Marcus Whitman, which has been on display for about 68 years.
States often replace statues at the chamber, and Whitman’s statue would be relocated to a new display in Washington state if the legislation passes.
The bill’s passage came a day before the March 9 cutoff for legislators to consider passing bills in their chamber of origin.
In an emotional speech given remotely, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he was profoundly fortunate to have met the “greatest man who was born in Washington.”
“He’s a great man, madame speaker, because after all that he went through — and I think that it was very, very hard, harder than anyone of us could imagine — he forgave. Madame speaker, he didn’t get bitter. He forgave everybody. He never gave up his struggle, and he moved on to expand it,” Wilcox said.
Frank Jr., who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a tireless advocate for native fishing rights, environmentalism, equality and justice. He was arrested more than 50 times for exercising his treaty-given rights to fish for salmon along the Nisqually River in an era deemed the Fish Wars. His actions — though viewed as rebellious at the time — would later be vindicated by the Boldt Decision.
He chaired the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission for nearly 30 years, and he was instrumental in the founding of ecological groups that work today to protect the Nisqually River as well as the Puget Sound. His legacy lives on as a unifier who made sure all stakeholders had a seat at the table.
Wilcox’s father knew Frank Jr. closely and the two were part of a series of meetings that determined the fate of the Nisqually Watershed. Frank Jr. was a rare consensus builder during an increasingly divisive moment in history, Wilcox said, describing the “handshake that changed history.”
“He didn’t have to do that, madame speaker. He could have been bitter,” Wilcox said. “His ancestors walked on the ground that my dad and I live on. He didn’t covet that. He wanted bigger things, madame speaker, and he’s been an example to the entire world.”