“People need to know the truth,” he said, explaining an 1854 treaty between the Puget Sound tribes and the US government that guaranteed tribal fishing rights for all eternity. the truth – that should be the crucible, as we look at our history again.
Lincoln was not perfect, and Billy Frank Jr. never claimed moral infallibility.
But in their public life, these men have pushed the nation to higher ground. The same cannot be said of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a man who has been charged with treason, and another traitor, his Vice President, Alexander Stephens – both of whom are still at Statuary Hall, even after having made war on the United States. Mr. Stephens said that Confederation was founded “on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that the subordination of slavery to the superior race is its natural and normal condition.
This couple are expected to join the recently retired Robert E. Lee statue in the dark closet of our history.
Marcus Whitman, the man Frank will replace on Capitol Hill after a bipartisan majority in the Washington state legislature voted for the change, was also not someone to admire. Mr. Whitman was murdered by Cayuse Indians in 1847, near Walla Walla today, in the midst of a deadly measles epidemic.
“Whitman was a mediocre man of his day, not a hero,” said Blaine Harden, author of a terrific new book, “Murder at the Mission,” a deconstruction of the tired lie from Whitman’s story.
The outgoing statue of Mr. Whitman in deerskin and a Bible is a totem pole of the Great Lie which he rescued from the land of Oregon from the British, a founding myth of the Pacific Northwest. “It was the kind of lie many Americans still worship – simple, hero-driven, action-packed, God-ordained.” Mr. Harden told me. “Replacing Marcus Whitman with Billy Frank Jr. is sweet symbolic justice.”
I went to the wildlife refuge named in honor of Mr. Frank the other day to take a little nature recall photo. The sky was crowded with bald eagles and the estuary thick with red flowering currants and peripatetic hummingbirds. all within the noise of Interstate 5, about 50 miles south of Seattle.
But I also wanted to summon the spirit of the man I knew just as Billy – his guts, his wisdom, his big unbroken heart. “Being with Billy is like floating on a steady and easy river,” his wife Sue Crystal, who died of cancer in 2001, once said. “He’s the happiest person I know.”
That’s what I remember him – the joy of seeking righteousness.
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Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is an opinion writer covering the environment, the American West, and politics. He is a National Book Award winner and most recently author of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity”.