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Design unveiled for Billy Frank Jr. statue that will be displayed at U.S. Capitol

A group of men standing around statue in front of a marble pillar.
Laurel Demkovich
Washington State Standard
Nisqually Tribal Chairman Willie Frank III, right, discusses the newly designed statue mockup of his father, Billy Frank Jr., with other attendees at Wednesday’s unveiling. A full-scale, bronze statue of Billy Frank Jr. will be placed in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. next year.

Seeing the design of a statue of his father that will eventually sit in the U.S. Capitol, Willie Frank III said he was almost moved to tears.

The mockup of the statue depicts tribal leader and fishing rights activist Billy Frank Jr. overlooking water, with salmon at his feet. It’s a design that Washington leaders say speaks to Frank’s friendliness and openness to working together.

“It truly is a blessing,” Willie Frank III said.

A model of Washington’s forthcoming addition to the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., was unveiled Jan. 10 to a packed, teary-eyed room of state lawmakers, tribal leaders and activists.

The full-scale statue of Frank, cast in bronze, will replace a rendition of Washington’s Marcus Whitman. It will be the first in the collection at the U.S. Capitol to depict a contemporary Native American, according to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

“We are giving the best of Washington to our nation’s Capitol,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “There are 100 statutes, but there are none more meaningful to the country and to Washington than Billy Frank, Jr.”

Lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 to replace the Whitman statue with one of Frank.

A statue of a man sitting on a rock with fish jumping out of the water
Laurel Demkovich
Washington State Standard
A design mockup of the Billy Frank Jr. statue that will eventually be on display at the U.S. Capitol.

Frank, a member of the Nisqually tribe, fought throughout his life to protect endangered salmon and tribal treaty rights. “Fish-ins” and other Demonstrations he was involved in during the 1960s and 1970s helped lead to a 1974 court ruling, known as the Boldt decision, which protected the rights of tribes to fish without being subject to state regulation.

Whitman, a doctor and missionary, settled in the 1830s in the vicinity of what is today Walla Walla, intending to convert Indians to Christianity. Members of the Cayuse Tribe killed him, his wife Narcissa and 11 others in 1847. The attack came as Cayuse members were dying from a measles outbreak and amid rising tensions between tribal members and the white settlers.

The statue of Whitman was added to the Statuary Hall collection in 1953. Since then, historians and others have taken a more critical view of Whitman’s legacy and how it was entwined with the broader movement of pushing Native Americans from their ancestral lands.

Washington’s other statue on display in Statuary Hall is of Mother Joseph, or Esther Pariseau, who in the 1800s helped to design and establish hospitals and orphanages in the Northwest. The statue of her was added in 1980.

The 2021 law created the Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee – comprised of lawmakers, tribal leaders, Frank’s family, archivists and others. Their goal was to find a new home near Walla Walla for the Whitman statue, finalize a design for Frank’s and select an artist to create it.

Seattle artist Haiying Wu designed the Frank statue. Wu said at the unveiling his would be the first statue designed by a Chinese American in the national hall, which features 100 statues, two from each state. Wu said he wanted to capture Frank’s charming personality and unwavering spirit in the design.

The 4-foot-tall model, or maquette, will be housed at the lieutenant governor’s office. The full-scale, 9-foot-tall statue is expected to be installed in the U.S. Capitol in 2025. Another full-size bronze copy of the statue will then be displayed in the Legislative Building in Olympia.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said Frank’s statue can teach everyone that there is a time to shake hands – something Frank always did, even with those he didn’t always agree with.

It’s a message the country needs now more than ever, Wilcox said.

“One more time, Billy is going to Washington, D.C., at exactly the right time,” he said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence.

Laurel Demkovich is a reporter for the Washington State Standard.