On Billy Frank Jr. Day, Rebecca Miles, Frank’s great-niece and current executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe, spoke to students at Quilcene School to remind them of how her great-uncle fought …
On Billy Frank Jr. Day, Rebecca Miles, Frank’s great-niece and current executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe, spoke to students at Quilcene School to remind them of how her great-uncle fought for justice and environmental preservation.
A member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Frank was a great teacher and humanitarian, Miles said.
Billy Frank Jr. Day, on March 9, officially commemorates Frank’s life, which began on March 9, 1931 and ended on May 5, 2014.
Frank became renowned for his courage, kindness and dedication. Presidents Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all knew who he was, said Miles.
During his 83 years, Frank received a number of honors and was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, in November 2015.
Miles said she didn’t realize how successful her uncle was until she saw him in the halls of Congress.
“Billy Frank Jr. achieved greatness,” she said, characterizing Frank as a simple, hardworking guy from a little tribe in Washington state who loved the environment, especially salmon. He stood up for tribal rights, playing a crucial role in the skirmishes that culminated in affirmation of tribal fishing rights by the Supreme Court.
Miles encouraged students from kindergarten through 12th grade to stand up for their own beliefs.
Frank was arrested 52 times for salmon fishing, drawing attention to the plight of native tribes that had exchanged land for customary use in treaties that were being ignored.
“He went through a lot of pain to have a lot of success,” she said.
“Think about the kind of person you’re going to be,” Miles urged students. “The way you live is going to make a footprint, good or bad, or both.
“We as humans are going to have to decide what are we going to do about the future,” she said.
Miles’ overall message of civic responsibility is important, Quilcene School Principal Sean Moss told The Leader.
“Whenever we can teach kids critical thinking and how to look at all the information, that’s very important,” Moss said. “Half of these high schoolers are going to be voting in the next presidential election. They’ll be making decisions that will be affecting my 4-year-old. Unless they are taught, our kids are going to learn apathy. I like to say we are not just making good kids, we’re making good adults.”
Miles pointed to the responsibility of all to make decisions that will affect the future. In the U.S., not everyone votes, which means that a few make decisions for all.
“Diversity is great. We don’t want the same thing for lunch, or to wear the same color, or to have the same haircut. You want to make your own decisions and have a peaceful life. You will have a better life if you are tolerant of other people.”
“Not everybody agrees on the same thing,” said Miles. “Sometimes we collide with others.”
Miles shared some personal experiences of her life in Lapwai, Idaho, and emphasized the importance of education.
She became the first woman, and the youngest person ever, to serve as chair of her tribe in 2005.
“We can learn things in everyday life. I will always be a student of the earth.
“The coastal tribes all have a fundamental belief in the circle of life,” said Miles. “Everything is dependent on something else in the circle of life. As an example, killer whales rely on salmon to survive. They will die if there are no salmon. That is the circle of life. ”
When she was growing up, Miles said, she loved salmon, but got sick of having it all the time. Now, the fish’s decline and scarcity have made her grow to love salmon in a different way.
The Nez Perce exchanged 13 million acres of land for a central Idaho reservation and the right to continue tribal hunting and fishing.
Fishing conflicts between Indians and whites created animosity until both sides realized they were fighting over bread crumbs, said Miles.
“Now, 40 years later, you have a lot more successful efforts to restore salmon.”
“The Nez Perce Tribe has the largest tribal fisheries department in the country, and we’ve been building back habitat, restoring waters, but we can’t do it all by ourselves,” said Miles.
“There’s a pathway forward for everyone. We were all born here; we all deserve to be safe, to have clean air and water,” she said. “Billy Frank said there’s never a ‘too late.’”
“It’s an honor to continue to share the message of Billy Frank,” she said. “It couldn’t need to be repeated more than now.”