Monday, October 09, 2017

Having Coffee with Billy Frank

By Fred Owens

Goodby Columbus! It's not your holiday anymore and your day is done. We call it Indigenous Peoples Day now. So I will tell the story about how I had coffee with Billy Frank in 1985.
I used to live in LaConner right near the Swinomish Reservation. My kids went to Head Start on the Reservation when Toni Ann Rust was the teacher. So the kids got to know each other, town kids and reservation kids.
At that time, in the early 1980s, Rosie and Earl James lived across the street from us in town, with their two girls, April and Ginger. I do not know why they didn't live on Res itself, but that doesn't matter  -- they lived across the street from us, and their two girls often baby sat for our two children, and sometimes we would come over to their house for a meal.
I also got to know Roger and Matilda Cayou, Rosie's mother and father. They had a house on the Res so we would go over their for meals sometimes or just to watch TV.
Earl James, Rosie's husband, came from a tribe in Canada, the Lillooet people.
He married Rosie, and his younger sister Gail married Rosie's younger brother Vincent. To repeat, the brother and sister from Lillooet married the sister and brother from Swinomish. Too confusing for me. I just figured they were all related. And the Cayous weren't Swinomish, they were Samish. Also confusing, but they were just good friends to us, so it didn't matter.
The Wilburs were another family on the Res. I got the feeling that the Wilburs were a big deal, but I never asked too many questions. I knew Jimmy Wilbur when he was a deacon at St. Paul's, the little Catholic church on the Res.
Jimmy also had a sweat lodge out on the sand spit, right there at the foot of McGlinn Island. There was a ranch house he lived in and the sweat lodge was in the back, built of branches and covered with old  blankets and canvas tarps.
I said to Jimmy one day, "You ought to invite me to your sweat lodge sometime," and he said, "Sure, why don't you come this Sunday afternoon. Bring a pair of shorts. We'll have the sweat and then we'll have a salmon dinner afterward."
That sounded good to me. Jimmy was working with troubled Native American young men who had drug and alcohol problems, in trouble with the law and often not welcome on the Reservation.
The sweat lodge was for their healing. I could use some healing myself, so I showed up and the fire outside the sweat lodge was roaring hot and the stones were glowing red.
Jimmy said, "Go inside and take the farthest seat in the back, that's the seat of honor. That's because you're the oldest man here today."
So I went inside and it was dark and I would much rather be sitting near the door because it was going to get very hot in there.
They brought in the glowing stones, red like fire, and then closed the door and it got dark black, not like the kind of dark where you get used to it after ten minutes. This was black, dark like the sun don't ever shine again. And it got hot in there with the steam. I practically could not breath. It was ferocious. Hot. I sweated a lot.
Jimmy invited me to say some words,  we went around the lodge each in turn -- there were maybe six young men and they all said their words, and gradually it became a little less hot.
Then it was over and they opened the door and the light came back in. Whew!
Time for salmon dinner in the house. I sure felt good.
This was maybe 15 years ago. I don't know where Jimmy is now, but I thank him for the sweat lodge experience.
Now we are going back further in time to when I had coffee with Billy Frank in 1985.
At that time I represented sport fishing interests in the Pacific Northwest and Billy Frank was the chairman of the Nisqually Tribe and most people considered Billy to be the chief spokesman and leader of tribal fishermen in the region. He was the man.
I couldn't make an appointment to talk with Billy, but I could drive the ninety minutes down to Nisqually and hope he wasn't busy.  Billy often occupied a booth at the coffee shop right off the Res and right next to the freeway. That's where he met people and Billy Frank knew everybody from the Governor on down to the local hot dog salesman. He was a friendly and open-hearted man.
I got there and saw him in the booth with one other man. I came up to the booth and introduced myself. "Hi Billy, I'm Fred Owens with the Northwest Fishing Forecast."  I gave him a copy of the little newspaper. He looked at the paper and swept his arm and said, "Have a seat, let's talk."
I told him my father taught me how to fish, and he said it was the same with him.  I said I liked fishing on a river, but a lake was pretty good and he said same with me.
I said I came from the Midwest and they didn't have tides or saltwater back there, or salmon. It was all very different. Billy said he had never fished in the Midwest nor ever been there. So that brought things to a pause.
We didn't have a lot in common. His education and mine. Not the same. But there was plenty of time -- Billy was never too busy to talk to a friend and we were already friends.  We looked out the window and talked about birds, then football teams, then children, then TV shows.
I represented sports fishing interests at that time. Interests that were opposed to his tribal views. I did not come down to Nisqually to debate him or negotiate anything. Just human contact. Start from there. Billy knew that.
I was in his territory, in his booth, at the coffee shop next to the Nisqually Reservation, at the south end of Puget Sound, near to Olympia, the state Capital. Billy made me feel welcome. I admired his courage and friendly nature. He smiled. We shook hands and I left.

Billy Frank Junior was born in 1931  ..... This is the link to his entry on Wikipedia ..... He was 15 years older than me. He passed away a few years ago. He was well known in Washington state. He had many friends from the Governor on down to the local hot dog salesman. And he was a great fisherman.
Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!
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