I tell my people to get ready. Get your smokehouses back in shape. Don't forget the ceremonies. That guy, the salmon, he's coming back.

- Billy Frank Jr.

Note: This story was published in 2012

Billy Frank Jr. is a fisherman, and when he dies he hopes that's how history remembers him. He is not a casual angler who passes sunny afternoons in search of tall tales and kings. Fishing is part of Billy's DNA. In a society fascinated by advancing technology, the Nisqually Indian will take you back to nature. He'll show you the great rivers where the salmon run, and he'll tell you the story of his mysterious fish.

Decades ago, in a far different America, salmon wars erupted on Northwest rivers. Unknown tribal members held up Indian treaties and took a stand for fishing rights. One was a Nisqually Indian named Billy Frank. "I wasn't the Billy Frank that I am now," the Nisqually tribal leader told reporters in 1984. "I was a bitter person." Says friend Tom Keefe, "When I look at Billy Frank, and I guess I know more about him than most people, I can say there is a guy who decided that he could change the world by changing himself."

Frank rose from skirmishes on the riverbank and survived personal trials to become a visionary leader known across the world. Court battles over fishing rights continue. Frank's message is to protect the salmon, still struggling to survive the highways of the sea.


Billy Frank Jr. is inspired by his father and friend of 50 years, Hank Adams. Both played instrumental roles in his journey.

Billy and Hank Adams

Read Hank Adams's biography

You could never run out of adjectives describing Hank Adams. The Assiniboine Sioux is uncommonly gifted and marvelously complex. He is as elusive as he is loyal — and rarely without sarcasm. Though few outsiders grasp his role, Adams's mark is everywhere in Indian Country, from its seminal events to its most obscure. Billy’s friend for a half century, Adams has played a central character at every turn in the Nisqually elder's life. Hank was the one "making sure you understood that there was a problem," muses Dan Evans, former governor, of their respective roles in the divisive fish wars. “And Billy was the guy who very quickly started to say, 'This isn't working. We've got to find a better answer.'"

Hear the oral history of Willie Frank Sr.