Sometimes heroes come back. It does not happen often and in these days of intense cynicism, even the best of role models can completely disappoint. But Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota, is one long-distance runner who went the distance and continues to run with the people.
We pay homage today to this man, his life and his work. We appreciate the commitment he has shown to the People.
Unknown and unnoticed as he entered the Olympic field in 1964, Billy Mills ran one of the most outstanding races in the history of international competition. That year he stunned the crowd in Tokyo, coming from behind to win the gold medal in the 10,000-meter race, still today the only American ever to do so. Two experienced runners ? one Australian, one African ? had gotten out in front and forced him to the outside of the running pack. But in the last hundred meters, Mills found, in his words, 'a huge burst of energy,' sprinting past them to win decidedly, a commentator loudly exclaiming: 'Oh my God, look at Mills! He's gonna win!'
Long-distance running is a particularly Native sport, requiring speed and stamina and evoking a type of forward-movement concentration that is often meditative. For many tribes, it is a spiritual activity that complements important traditional ceremonies. Mills is an Olympic champion who not only set a record, instilling a deep and abiding pride in his own people, but who throughout his life has sustained an ongoing commitment to help his people that is in itself nothing short of Olympian.
Evoking the tradition of the giveaway, Mills turned his success into a way of giving back. Among other commitments, he is today the spokesperson for the organization, 'Running Strong for American Indian Youth,' a creative and generous enterprise that has generated many serious and important programs for Indian people.
On Mills' own home reservation of Pine Ridge in South Dakota, Running Strong for American Indian Youth has generated and contributes to a highly needed youth facility, the SuAnne Big Crow Youth and Wellness Center ($100,000 recent award), a clinic for diabetics at Porcupine (one of the best in South Dakota) and an incredible agricultural development program that prepared 429 family and community gardens and distributed 20,000 seedlings this past Spring.
Just as importantly, Mills is often available, participating in speaking programs and running benefit races with kids in many parts of Indian country.
One can think of all too many Indian leaders who gained fame and fortune, went on with careers yet seldom looked back. While the dismal conditions that fueled the movement of the 1970s continue to plague many reservations, the biggest need in Indian country is hope itself. We need heroes, real heroes, not of the flashy, self-centered and media savvy types ? of which we have seen too many ? but the quiet, dedicated ones, the ones that give of themselves, again and again and again, the ones who accomplish, achieve success, yet find ways to continue to give back to their peoples. This describes Billy Mills.
It takes strong families. Mills himself pays homage to his own father. 'I was constantly told and challenged to live my life as a warrior,' he says. 'As a warrior, you assume responsibility for yourself. The warrior humbles himself. And the warrior learns the power of giving.'
Keep running Billy Mills. Wopila.