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Tribes Tap Late Leader’s Memory For Inspiration At First Salmon Summit

Local tribes are calling on the memory of legendary civil rights activist Billy Frank rev up the fight for salmon recovery. They met in Tulalip Monday for what they dubbed a “first-annual” Pacific Salmon Summit, named in his honor.

Frank, who died four years ago in May, organized “fish-ins” in the 1960s and 70s to assert tribal treaty rights. His activism ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s landmarkBoldt decision protecting those rights.

Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp gave the summit’s keynote address. She described Frank as a mentor with a huge reach and warm embrace that could bring all kinds of people together and inspire them to work past their differences to preserve Pacific salmon and the native way of life that depends so directly on them.

Speaking beneath a conference banner bearing his portrait and the slogan, “The Truth Will Lead Us,” Sharp noted mounting excitement about making this summit the premiere place for salmon advocates to come together and push past barriers that have held them back.

“You’re going to find this is the beginning,” Sharp said. “Because the salmon is – as Billy said so many times – the true measure of our health and our life. And who’s paying attention to that? We are.”  

The summit opened with traditional drumming and prayers, as well as a color guard. Organizers also called on a traditional panel of witnesses, who they wrapped in woolen blankets and charged with recording and telling the truth about the meeting and preserving the memory.

Glen Gobin of the Tulalip Tribe was the master of ceremonies at the summit. He said this practice keeps with the long tribal tradition of oral histories, which tap more into feelings than official recordings can.

“When it’s oral, it comes from inside here,” Gobin said, touching his chest.  “It’s not written down, it comes from inside here and the things that you feel,” he said. 

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX
A ceremonial call for official "witnesses" of the meeting included wrapping the individuals in woolen blankets. They were charged with paying close attention, to preserve memories of the summit meeting for the historical record.

Along with several tribal leaders and Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz, several younger people were chosen as witnesses to represent the future.

Among them was Tulalip member Cecelia Gobin, Glen Gobin’s daughter. She said she’s ready to carry Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy forward. 

She remembers how he would visit their house when she was a kid.  Frank worked closely with her grandfather in the 1970s on fisheries management issues after the Boldt decision that confirmed tribes’ rights to fifty percent of the catch.       

“You know that was the dinner table conversation for us grandkids growing up was the treaty and what that says and what it means and hearing about the fish wars. And we were just born into that,” she said.

The younger Gobin now works for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. She says this summit marks a turning point, and it’s time to start telling some hard truths.    

“We can’t be afraid to say what it is we need to do just because we know that’s going to mean some difficult decisions and tasks and really hard work ahead,” Gobin said.

“We don’t have any more time. We don’t have any more time for the salmon, for any of our treaty resources, really.  We’re at a critical juncture and it’s going to take hard work.”

The summit wrapped up with a call to action to challenge the status quo. A work group has formed to develop proposed actions and investigate conflicts and failings in reaching recovery objectives. Their common goals include increased use of hatcheries and more aggressive habitat restoration.

There was also a joint declaration with representatives of several indigenous First Nations from Canada calling for a shutdown of Atlantic salmon net-pen farming all along the West Coast, after Washington’s recently passed law to phase the practice out.

The summit was organized by the nonprofit group Salmon Defense, which was established by the twenty western Washington Treaty Tribes in 2003 with a goal of addressing the need for a 100-year vision for salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to