Willie Frank (NTHS '00)
Alumni Spotlight: Willie Frank (NTHS, 2000) carries on his father’s tribal legacy
By Community Relations Intern: Clara Hall (Timberline c/o 2020)
Willie Frank III is a proud alumnus of North Thurston Public Schools and a member of the Nisqually Tribe. Today he is working to share his culture, his family history and life lessons with students across the district.
Frank grew up in Frank’s Landing, located eight miles from the Nisqually Reservation, with his parents Sue Crystal and Billy Frank Jr. Frank’s Landing played a major role in the “Fishing Wars” which took place in the 1960s and 1970s. “My parents both had very busy jobs growing up, but still found time to give me an amazing childhood. I realize the hard work and dedication they were instilling inside me at a young age,” said Frank.
Billy Frank Jr. was somewhat of a legend in Nisqually history. He was arrested over 50 times throughout his life for exercising his Treaty Rights, and spent his life advocating for salmon, the environment and Treaty Rights of tribes throughout the United States. “I always think about how angry and bitter my father could have been towards non-Native people for all the times he was arrested,” said Frank. “He went the other direction and became one of the most respected tribal leaders throughout the United States; he was the bridge between state and tribal relations.”
While Frank is now a respected leader in his own community, it took mentors and some tough life experiences to get him where he is today and follow in his father’s footsteps.
Throughout high school, Frank was active in sports. He played baseball until his senior year, and basketball during his sophomore year. In hindsight, he wishes he had been more involved in schools. “I wish I knew what I know now [because] high school would have been completely different,” said Frank. “I would have been more serious and been involved with more clubs and sports.”
It was through sports that Frank met several staff members who inspired him, including his weight training teachers, Mr. Patchin and Mr. Bushue. “I was a chubby kid growing up,” said Frank. “That class helped me start exercising more and lifting weights [and] I still exercise today and lift weights. This helps with my everyday life being on Tribal Council. I know the days I workout I feel I have more energy. [It] helps with my mind, body, and soul.”
After graduating from North Thurston High School in 2000, Frank attended South Puget Sound Community College where he received his Associates Degree in General Studies. Following that, he attended Evergreen State College where he graduated with a degree in Native American Studies.
Frank’s real passion revolves around natural resources and working with youth. “I enjoy being able to advocate on behalf of our tribe and making sure the state and federal government understand that we have a Treaty Right that is the supreme law of the land,” said Frank. “We have to keep educating people about our tribe’s history and that our tribe is not going anywhere.”
He is also a fisherman on the Nisqually River and explains the importance surrounding it. “I am fortunate to fish with my brother in the same area where my father and grandfather fished,” said Frank. “My father made me realize how important the salmon are to our people. It’s tough to explain how sacred the salmon are to us. Being able to set our nets is a way to continue exercising our Treaty Rights. The salmon have continued to deplete in the last 15 years. I don’t want to be the generation that catches the last fish. Our tribes in the State of Washington are managers of the resource.”
In 2009, Frank was elected onto the Nisqually tribal council. Every three years there are elections in which all tribal members 18 and older vote to elect the seven tribal council seats. Frank himself is currently the 7th Council Member, but from 2009-2016 he served as the Vice-Chairman. In May 2019 he was re-elected for his fourth term. “The Tribal Council deals with a little bit of everything.”
It was during this period as a tribal leader, where Frank faced some huge personal challenges, including addiction. “In 2013 I started on a year and half downward spiral,” said Frank. He became addicted to pain pills which eventually landed him in jail in July 2014. “This was the first time I realized I had neither of my parents to help me get out of this one. I spent the 4th of July in jail and realized this isn’t where I want to spend my life,” he said.
After getting out of jail, Frank attended inpatient treatment, followed by outpatient treatment and probation with home monitoring. “Today I look back on my actions, and I am certainly not proud of what I did by any means, but if I didn’t hit my rock bottom I would not be alive today sharing my story,” said Frank.
Despite the challenges endured throughout his life, Frank mentions he would not change a thing. “I would not be the man I am today if I didn’t go through the trials and tribulations,” said Frank. “I urge anybody who is dealing with substance abuse issues to reach out and ask for help; it’s okay to ask for help.”
Going through his addiction, Frank realized he had to get better for himself. “I couldn’t help my tribe, I couldn’t be a good husband, I couldn’t be the man my parents raised me to be battling addiction,” said Frank. July 2nd of this year will mark 6 years of recovery for Frank. “I am grateful for all the people who stood by my side and supported me through recovery.”
He is especially grateful for his wife Peggen, the Executive Director of Salmon Defense. Today, the couple visits schools together to promote Native American history and salmon education. “She (Peggen) helped me get my life back on track after I hit rock bottom,” said Frank. “She has stood next to me through thick and thin. I am so grateful to have such an amazing Native American woman in my life!”
Frank hopes by sharing his story he can help others. He wants to especially encourage students who are still working towards their goals. “Work hard in school and life. I realize now that I should have worked harder in high school and college, but we live and learn from past mistakes,” said Frank. “Own up to any mistakes that you may make and grow from them. For me if I didn’t experience what I went through I wouldn’t be here today. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you realize your purpose in life!”