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Conservation Voices: WA State Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-40)

Telling the Story of Washington State by Honoring Billy Frank Jr. 

It has been my honor to serve in the Washington State Legislature since 2019, representing the 40th legislative district of Washington State, which includes parts of Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan Counties.  

While I have sponsored several bills that have become law, none are more personally satisfying than HB 1639, which was signed into law on May 9 by Governor Jay Inslee. That legislation will memorialize the late Billy Frank Jr. by erecting a statue of him in National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. The National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol Building features 100 statues, with each state contributing statues of two notable deceased residents; currently, Washington’s honorees are Marcus Whitman and Mother Joseph. HB 1639 includes approximately $1.1 million to replace the Whitman statue with one of Billy, a dedicated advocate for equality, justice, and environmental protection. 

Billy was known to say ‘tell your story.’ Through Billy’s story and his decades of activism, we learn the story of Washington State—not just the easy narrative, but the hard and challenging parts

When people asked Billy how to make a difference and bring about change, Billy was known to say ‘tell your story.’ Through Billy’s story and his decades of activism, we learn the story of Washington State—not just the easy narrative, but the hard and challenging parts. We learn about the importance of standing up for what is right and just, even when facing persecution. A statue of this great leader among other national heroes is the right way to honor his legacy, elevate his story, and inspire future generations to tell their own. 

Billy Frank Jr., Courtesy of Ted S Warren/AP

Billy was known for his commitment to protecting endangered salmon and the treaty rights guaranteed to Washington tribes. He chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for nearly 30 years. He helped organize “fish-ins” and demonstrations, which led to what is known as the Boldt Decision, a federal court case that reaffirmed tribal fishing rights.  

Billy was also known for bringing people together, regardless of their background or occupation, and finding the common ground needed to move forward. Because of his leadership and reconciliation efforts, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received numerous awards and honors for his advocacy. For example, he earned the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, the American Indian Distinguished Service Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award, and the Washington State Medal of Merit. In 2015, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a private U.S. citizen.  

It took three years to gain legislative and funding approvals for the statue project. It could not have happened without the support of tribal leaders and stakeholders such as Washington Wild.  

As former Governmental Affairs Director for the Swinomish Tribal Indian Community and a resident of the Skagit Valley for almost 20 years, I appreciate Washington Wild’s recent leadership in coordinating a successful international campaign to oppose mining threats in the British Columbia headwaters of the Skagit River. Tribes, First Nations, local elected officials, and conservation, recreation, and wildlife organizations responded to the call for action. In 2022, an agreement was reached to remove the threat to downstream values like salmon, orcas, treaty rights, and drinking water.  

I look forward to the results of a recent partnership between Washington Wild and THIS IS INDIAN COUNTRY, an organization led by Billy Frank Jr.’s son, Nisqually Tribal Chairman Willie Frank III, to honor his father’s life-long passion for telling the stories of Indian Country and sharing them with all. This Indigenous Climate Impacts Oral History project has captured oral histories and traditional ecological knowledge from 25 Pacific Northwest tribal leaders…so far. As Billy would have, these leaders do not just talk about the impacts of climate change; they are taking action to meet this existential challenge head-on. 

I look forward to finding additional opportunities to tell all of our story together. 

Representative Lekanoff has served as a public servant to citizens for more than two decades serving the 40th Legislative District, Washington state, and Tribal communities both locally and nationally.