The design for a statue of late Nisqually treaty rights activist Billy Frank Jr. was unveiled Wednesday night at the State Capitol Building. Speaking to a packed room of enthusiastic friends, family, and admirers of Billy Frank Jr., Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck opened the event by acknowledging the gravity of the moment, saying, “I’m going to ask you from the bottom of my heart for your strongest forbearance today as I attempt to get through this without crying.”
“When we send this statue to Washington, we are going to give the best of Washington to our nation’s Capitol,” said Governor Jay Inslee. “Not only will it be the best of Washington, the salmon will be right there. Billy Frank Jr. is, was, and will always be salmon, and now he will send that message to Washington, D.C.”
“What this statue captures is Billy’s friendliness, openness, and willingness to listen to other people of different views, and ultimately, bring us together,” Inslee added.
The roughly half-scale model—or “maquette”—on display Wednesday night was created by renowned Chinese-American sculptor Haiying Wu, who will next make a full-scale clay model standing approximately nine feet tall. Mr. Wu’s design depicts Billy Frank Jr. smiling and seated comfortably at the river’s edge with leaping salmon and a traditional fishing net laid at his feet.
“It was deeply moving to see this larger representation of my father for the first time,” said Willie Frank III, Chairman of the Nisqually Indian Tribe and son of Billy Frank Jr. “I was so glad to see not only our Nisqually people here, but all the other tribal people who made the trip to see this amazing moment.”
“Having my father permanently in Washington, D.C. means he continues to give us the opportunity to tell our story, just like he always told us to do.”
Representative Debra Lekanoff, who introduced House Bill 1372 that authorized the statue’s creation, spoke to Billy’s influence.
“Billy taught me the words of courage, the words to stand up, the words to be brave,” she said. “There isn’t anyone else more respectful, more kind, more loving, who gave you his heart, who wasn’t afraid to say, “God damn it, let’s do it.””
Once completed, Mr. Wu’s full-scale statue design will be sent to a Washington-based foundry to be cast in bronze—twice. One statue will be sent to National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., and the second will make its home at the State Capitol in Olympia, Washington. The Washington State Arts Commission, also known as ArtsWA, facilitated the artist selection process and now consults on the project’s upcoming milestones.
“This statue is a testament not only to Billy Frank Jr.’s nationwide impact and legacy, but also to the power of art to inspire us, bring us together, and move us to tears,” said Karen Hanan, ArtsWA’s Executive Director, adding, “Through Mr. Wu’s masterful artistry, Billy has given us yet another gift that will resound across the generations.”
The maquette is now on public display in the lobby of the Lieutenant Governor’s office, where it is surround by an interpretative display about Billy Frank Jr.’s life, House Bill 1372, artist Haiying Wu, and more. The event was covered by TVW and is available for viewing online. Mr. Wu’s maquette design must next be approved by the Curator of the Architect of the Capitol, but those gathered in the State Reception Room on Wednesday night were already celebrating a landmark moment in Washington State history.
“It’s an overwhelmingly emotional day, and I think for all the work and effort – and it has been a considerable amount – it didn’t become concretely, manifestly real until today,” said Lieutenant Governor Heck, reflecting on the unveiling. “Now it’s real, and it’s emotionally overwhelming.”