SEATTLE (AP) — Billy Frank Jr., a tribal fisherman who led the "fish wars" that restored fishing rights and helped preserve a way of life for American Indians in the Northwest four decades ago, died Monday at 83.
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and the Nisqually Tribe near Olympia, Washington, confirmed his death. The cause was not immediately known.
Frank was arrested more than 50 times for "illegal fishing" between boyhood and middle age, during what came to be known as the fish wars. Initially driven to fish at night and hide his canoe to avoid authorities who regarded them as poachers, he and others took their fight public in the 1960s, inviting observers to witness their sometimes violent arrests.
Patterned after the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the campaign was part of larger, nationwide movement for American Indian rights, including better schooling, free speech and legal protections.
"He was a selfless leader who dedicated his life to the long fight for the rights of our state's native people," Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement. "Billy was a champion of tribal rights, of the salmon, and the environment. He did that even when it meant putting himself in physical danger or facing jail."
The tribes had fished Northwest waters from time immemorial, and treaties promised them access to their "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds in exchange for ceding land to the white settlers in the 1850s.
But Washington state imposed restrictions on fishing last century as dams, logging runoff, pollution and overfishing cut into once abundant salmon runs. The tribes, many of which had their own fishing regulations, objected to the state imposing its will — especially when some 95 percent of fish harvested in Washington waters were caught by non-Indian fishermen.
Demonstrations staged across the Northwest attracted national attention, and the fishing-rights cause was taken up by celebrities such as the actor Marlon Brando, who was arrested with others in 1964 for illegal fishing from an Indian canoe on the nearby Puyallup River.
Frank, from a family of fishermen in the Nisqually Tribe, was first arrested for salmon fishing in 1945, at age 14 — an event that helped lead him on his long campaign for tribal rights. He and others were repeatedly arrested as they staged "fish-ins" demanding the right to fish in their historical waters.
The protests sometimes turned violent, with activists fighting back against state officials with sticks and paddles, the Washington state history website historylink.org noted.
There were two skirmishes in 1965: when state agents spilled a tribal boat on the Nisqually River, and when they raided the Frank family's six-acre property, known as Frank's Landing, which had become a focal point for fish-ins. Fights also erupted between Indian and non-Indian fishermen.