U.S. Navy to name ship in honor of late tribal activist Billy Frank Jr.

The USNS Billy Frank Jr. will be a Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue ship


The late Billy Frank Jr, a Nisqually tribal elder and legendary Native American activist, will soon have a U.S. Navy ship named in his honor.

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced on July 14 that a future Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue ship will bear the name USNS Billy Frank Jr. The class of ships are traditionally named after prominent Native Americans or Native American tribes.

“I am honored for the opportunity to name a naval ship after Billy Frank Jr., a man who was a proponent and leader for Native American rights,” Del Toro said in a press release. “Billy Frank Jr. spent his life serving others, and his namesake ship will do the same as it travels around the world enabling humanitarian assistance and the maintenance of freedom.”

Born in Nisqually in 1931, Frank was a prominent advocate of tribal fishing rights throughout his life. He was first arrested in 1945 at the age of 14 while fishing on his beloved Nisqually River, according to Historylink.com. He served as a military policeman in the U.S. Marine Corps for two years before returning to Washington, where he continued to fish. Frank became the leader of a civil disobedience movement that insisted on the 19th century treaties that guaranteed the local tribes access to historical waters for fishing.

His “fish-ins” and demonstrations at the state Capitol gained national attention, and Frank was arrested more than 50 times in his fight to preserve his tribe’s right to fish in their beloved land, according to Historylink. The movement led to the landmark Boldt Decision that re-affirmed the rights of Native American tribes to half of the fish harvest and the right to fish in their waters as they always had.

Frank dedicated his life to activism, serving as the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission from 1981 until his death in 2014 at the age of 83. He was a founding member of Salmon Defense, a nonprofit organization formed by the twenty western Washington tribes that focused on “the welfare of our region’s salmon and their habitat,” according to the organization’s website.

He received numerous awards and honors in his life, including the Washington State Environmental Excellence Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. Frank was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015, and the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was redesignated as the “Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge” as part of President Obama’s “Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act.” Frank will have a statue in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and another in Olympia at the end of 2024 or early 2025, according to Willie Frank III, Frank’s son and the chairman of the Nisqually Tribal Council.

“This would be something that I feel like he’d be very proud of along with the statues, with the opportunity to continue telling our story to a whole other generation of people,” Frank III said of the U.S. Navy’s announcement. “With him being a retired Marine, it’s kind of beautiful to see that we’re finally getting that recognition to show our indigenous people who commit to that line of duty.”

The USNS Billy Frank Jr. (T-ATS 11) is the latest honor for a man who played a significant role in tribal rights in Washington and fought to preserve those rights until the end.

“The one thing that my father was most proud of was to be Nisqually, and he was proud of each and every one of us who are in the Nisqually, and he was proud of all of our Indian people in our tribes,” Frank III said.

“It’s a wonderful way of paying tribute to somebody who was so instrumental in tribal rights,” said Glynnis Nakai, refuge manager for the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. “What was so appropriate about it being named after Billy Frank Jr. is the type of work that those Navajo-class ships perform. That was really appropriate because of the effort by Billy Frank Jr. in helping others and informing others about fishing rights and being a voice not just for the Nisqually tribe, but also other tribes in the Pacific Northwest and other areas.”

The Navajo-class ships are capable of towing U.S. Navy ships and have 6,000 square feet of deck space for embarked systems. The USNS Billy Frank Jr. is the sixth ship in the class.