Statuary Hall in the US Capitol features a line-up of 100 statues commemorating noteworthy participants in the country’s history — two from each of the 50 states. In a move that signals official efforts to reframe who we acknowledge in our houses of legislature, the likeness of a Native American environmental activist will soon stand in the US Capitol. Flanked by Nisqually tribal leaders, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee recently signed measure HB1372 to install a statue of Billy Frank Jr. at Wa He Lut Indian School in the Nisqually community north of Olympia.
Frank Jr. was a Nisqually tribal leader who, before passing in 2014 at age 83, spent his life examining and advocating on behalf of treaty rights and environmental protections, particularly for fishing grounds and watersheds. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Obama in 2015.
The measure to replace Washington state’s Marcus Whitman statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection with Frank’s likeness was backed by bipartisan support. Whitman was a colonist and missionary who spearheaded the invasion of early American settlements into Western tribal lands. He was particularly active in his attempts to convert Native Cayuse people to Christian teachings and was ultimately killed in an altercation with Cayuse individuals.
As statuary continues to serve as a symbolic battleground in terms of whose values are championed in our highest offices of government, it seems heartening to exchange a legacy of violent religious colonialism with one of environmental stewardship.
“Billy Frank Jr. walked every watershed to the east and west of the mountains. He stood in every river, wishing for the salmon to come home, and then took action by collaborating with local, tribal, state, and federal communities to rise and stand together,” Representative Debra Lekanoff, quoted on Gov. Inslee’s website. Lekanoff was the sponsor of HB 1372 and is the sole Native American currently serving in the Washington State Legislature.
“His story is one of a dedicated advocate who stood against persecution and fought for equality and justice, and to protect our water, land, and air for the generations to come. His statue will serve to honor his legacy and as a call to action for all who see it,” she continued.
The inclusion of Frank Jr. in the Hall of Statuary also further diversifies the collection, which features few other statues of Native or Indigenous Americans. Those already in the collection include King Kamehameha I from Hawaii; Sarah Winnemucca from Nevada; Sequoyah from Oklahoma; Washakie from Wyoming; Po’pay from New Mexico; and Chief Standing Bear from Nebraska.