“The people need to know the truth,” he used to say, by way of explaining an 1854 treaty between the tribes of Puget Sound and the American government that guaranteed tribal fishing rights for eternity. The truth — that should be the crucible, as we look anew at our history.
Lincoln was not perfect, and Billy Frank Jr. never claimed moral infallibility.
But in their public lives, these men moved the nation to higher ground. The same cannot be said of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, a man who was indicted on a charge of treason, and another traitor, his vice president, Alexander Stephens — both of whom are still in Statuary Hall, even after waging war on the United States. Mr. Stephens said the Confederacy was founded “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
That pair should join the recently removed statue of Robert E. Lee in the dark closet of our history.
Marcus Whitman, the man Frank will replace in the Capitol after a bipartisan majority of the Washington State Legislature voted for the switch, was also not someone to look up to. Mr. Whitman was murdered by Cayuse Indians in 1847, near present day Walla Walla, in the midst of a lethal measles outbreak.
“Whitman was a mediocre man of his era, not a hero,” said Blaine Harden, author of terrific new book, “Murder at the Mission,” a deconstruction of the tired falsehood of the Whitman story.
The outgoing statue of Mr. Whitman in buckskin and a Bible is a totem to the Big Lie that he saved the Oregon Country from the British, a founding myth of the Pacific Northwest. “It was the kind of lie that many Americans still love — simple, hero-driven, action-packed, ordained by God,” Mr. Harden told me. “Replacing Marcus Whitman with Billy Frank Jr. is sweet symbolic justice.”
I went down to the wildlife refuge named for Mr. Frank the other day to get a little booster shot of nature. The sky was crowded with bald eagles and the estuary thick with red-flowering currants and peripatetic hummingbirds— all within the noise of Interstate 5, about 50 miles south of Seattle.
But I also wanted to summon the spirit of the man I knew as just Billy — his guts, his wisdom, his unbroken big heartedness. “Being with Billy is like floating on a steady, easy river,” his wife Sue Crystal, who died of cancer in 2001, once said. “He’s the happiest person I know.”
That’s what I remember about him — the joy in pursuit of justice.
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Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is a contributing opinion writer who covers the environment, the American West and politics. He is a winner of the National Book Award and author, most recently, of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.”