Olympian launches American Indian Heritage Month

By DAR HADDIX, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- From 12-year-old orphan on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation to 1964 Olympic gold medalist, Billy Mills, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, described Thursday how being American Indian has shaped his life in the keynote speech launching November's National American Indian Heritage Month.

Mills, 66, spoke at the Library of Congress in Washington about his Olympic victory, his battles with anti-Indian discrimination and the values by which he lives. He also signed copies of the new book he co-authored, "Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Understanding."


He described the elation he felt when during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he tore ahead of other front-runners in the last moments of the race to become the only gold-medal-winning athlete from North, Central or South America ever to win the 10,000-meter race. "That moment I felt like I had wings on my feet." His win is considered one of the greatest Olympic moments of the 20th century.


But he also touched on darker moments, such as how photographers often asked him to step out of athlete group photos because he was not white.

Jesse Rentaria, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Fellow, and whose grandfather is cousin to Mills, helped coordinate the event.

"American Indians have been ignored and marginalized for a long time in this country. With the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian it was appropriate to include Native American Heritage Month here at the Library of Congress by recognizing those who have been in this country for hundreds of years, since we are usually viewed

as relics of the past as opposed to living peoples," he said.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian opened Sept. 21.

Introductory speaker Gilbert Sandate, director of the LOC's Office of Workforce Diversity, commented on the nation's long history of marginalizing American Indians.

"American Indians by and large have been relegated to the lowest echelons of our society ... but that is changing," he said.

"American Indians are beginning to get the respect and long-overdue homage they deserve ... The American Indian is being re-discovered by a nation that had discounted them and forgotten them," he added.


The first book Mills ever read, he said, was about the Olympics. But Mills' quest to be an Olympian at first had nothing to do with winning the 10,000-meter race. As an Olympian -- in the ancient sense -- he thought he'd be able to see his mother, who had recently died.

Mills said that while winning was a magical experience, "That's not what I took from the games." It was more of a chance to live the values he'd learned from his father than anything else, he said, especially the four most important virtues for a warrior: bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom. In that vein, Mills has traveled to 90 countries and raised millions of dollars for various charities since his Olympic victory. He is also the national spokesman for Running Strong, an American Indian youth program of Christian Relief Services Charities.

He explained how he also learned that people can become more united by being embracing the diversity of each other. "Unity through diversity" is a message he took from the games and applied to his life. But in the quest for this goal, "The greatest challenges we face are perceptions."

For instance, when he and the much-younger actor who played Mills in a 1984 movie made about his life, "Running Brave," ran against each other in a 10K race -- the race he ran for the Olympics -- some children watching the race were only interested in seeing the actor that played Mills in the movie, not Mills. Not knowing who Mills was as he passed them, some of the kids and teachers, trying to see around Mills, said, "If only that old man," -- meaning Mills -- "would move, we could see him," meaning the actor.


"Of course," Mills said, laughing, "I started looking around for the old man."

He also described encounters with perceptions -- or rather prejudice-fraught misconceptions -- about American Indians. He was eating dinner with his family when some members of the media, seated nearby, started wondering out loud whatever happened to the Olympian, Billy Mills. The conclusion shocked Mills and his family: Being American, he had likely become an alcoholic and drug addict, the man said. Mills' daughter, outraged, begged him repeatedly to set the men straight, but at first he couldn't.

"I broke. I couldn't speak." But then Mills did speak. "I know Billy Mills pretty well," he said. "Alcohol has never crossed his lips. He's never taken drugs." Then he identified himself. When the embarrassed men began apologizing, Mills said, "Don't be sorry -- address the perception."

As a young athlete, he almost jumped from the window of his hotel room once after the cycle of discrimination almost became too much to bear.

Photographers tried to force Mills out of group athlete photos. He was not allowed to join a fraternity at the University of Kansas. When he got a summer job in another state, he and a friend had to bunk down in old abandoned cars -- the only housing they could get as young Indian men -- and bathed in a creek. The local bank wouldn't even loan his brother $500 dollars to bury their mother because, the bank said, when Mills' brother defaulted on the loan, being Indian, he wouldn't have any collateral for them to confiscate.


Instead of jumping, Mills said, he went back into the hotel room and wrote himself a note. "Gold medal. 10,000 meter run. Believe, believe, believe."

Mills got past the discrimination, relying on a "value-based concept of self-empowerment," he said.

But there is still work to be done. Mills' hero, he said, is Crazy Horse -- legendary Oglala Lakota chief -- who also unfortunately happens to be the namesake of a malt-liquor beer, he noted.

Mills also disapproves of sport teams taking on American Indian mascots, and said so in an interview several years ago, with disturbing repercussions. "Since then," he said, "I have been spit upon ... (and) called 'prairie nigger.'"

"While things aren't perfect, times are changing," he said. "Now we can dream our dream, we can pursue it."


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