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Native Sports Legends Talk About Native Role Models

Native Sports Legends Talk about Native Role Models

Lakota elder Billy Mills paused for a moment, reflective, almost as if he was asking a silent prayer for the Creator to guide his words.

“Never in the history of the tribal nations has there been a greater need for us to get together and determine what type of life, what type of world we want to create for our children,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The prophecies of the Seventh Generation are not a guarantee. The prophecies of the Seventh Generation are a choice. That’s why we need to get together collectively and determine what choices we want to make to choreograph our future. If we choreograph it right, then the prophecies will be fulfilled.”

And the Seventh Generation is moving forward through the actions of the Schimmel sisters from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and the Thompson brothers from the Onondaga Nation, to name a few.

ICTMN asked American Indian Athletic Hall of Famers Billy Mills (Lakota), Sonny Sixkiller (Cherokee), Jim Warne (Lakota), along with Notah Begay III, the first Native to play on the PGA Tour, and Haskell Indian Nations University record-holder Wade McGee (Cherokee) to weigh in on the topic:

Native young people are emerging as role models in Indian Country. But do Indian people need Indian role models?

“I remember reading about Billy Mills winning the Olympic 10,000 meters and thinking, ‘Wow, he’s Indian’. I was proud, but it didn’t inspire me to go out and run a 10,000-meter race,” Sixkiller said with a laugh. Sixkiller (1970-72) racked up 385 completions, 5,496 yards and 35 touchdowns and set 15 school records in three years at Washington University.

Sonny Sixkiller

But McGee, who holds seven rushing records at Haskell, including an eye-popping 9.8 yards per carry average his sophomore season, said that other demographics are not like Indian Country.

“I think Indian kids do need Indian role models. We’re not like anybody else in the United States,” McGee told ICTMN. “We have an identity. We have a culture. Even our language is different. We’re unique in that our people come from this land, so we can be here today and that’s how we teach our kids.”

Mills agreed. “I definitely believe Indian kids need Indian role models,” said Mills, who was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 1978. “A young person growing up in an urban setting, who is very in tune with his culture, looks to role models for reassurance. There are children on the reservations that are well aware of how difficult it is to leave to go to school. I have gone to 108 different countries at this stage in my life, and yet the greatest culture shock I ever experienced was leaving [Pine Ridge] reservation for the first time to go to Haskell.”

Jim Warne

Warne played on the Arizona State football team that won the Rose Bowl in 1987. His story, called “Urban Indian,” was featured in Sports Illustrated.

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“I grew up in the city, but my mother, who was raised on Pine Ridge, always told me ‘You better act Lakota,’” said Warne, who was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 2004. “I think it’s good for Indian kids to have Indian role models, because they have that identification. Billy Mills is someone I could identify with because he’s from Pine Ridge. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if he can do it, maybe I can too.’ I got countless letters from people after the Rose Bowl saying they had watched me play and how important it was for them to see someone from Indian Country in such a big game. I had no idea how important it was to them. So I think it helps to have some folks from your own culture out they’re doing things that we can look up to.”

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Begay, 42, became the first Native to join the PGA Tour in 1995, and opened the door for other Native American golfers.

“Under ideal circumstances, it would be good for role models for our Indian kids to be Indian,” Begay said. “We’re used to the stories of, ‘that person had a lot of talent, but they flunked out’ or ‘that person had a lot of talent, but they just didn’t make it.’ I think the [Schimmel sisters and the Thompson brothers] can play an instrumental role in changing the mindset of our younger kids. They’re succeeding in the highest levels of competition.”

With drug addiction, teen suicide and the high school dropout rate going through the roof, some Native communities see college as the finish line. And Sixkiller, 62, tells young people that education is the answer.

“I did go to college. I did play sports, and I did all the right things in high school to get to that point,” said Sixkiller, who was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 1987. “I just met with a bunch of kids from the West that were in Seattle for the Native Youth and Enrichment Program at Husky Stadium. It’s not like I’m a 30-year-old kid just out of the NFL talking to them. Forty years later, what I have to say is still a big thing to the local Indian communities, and that’s pretty amazing.”

For Mills it’s once a teacher, always a teacher. He was in Colorado this summer for the World Lacrosse Championships and had a chance to talk with the Iroquois National team.

Notah Begay III

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“I really enjoyed the time I spent with them. I found they were intrigued that I had a world record,” Mills said. “I held seven American records and a world record on two separate occasions. Here it is 50 years later, and it’s still considered one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.”

Mills said that he would have loved to play on an all-Native team. And perhaps, his role models would have been his teammates.

“Looking at their expressions,” Mills said of the Nationals, “I could see them thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what we’re doing now.’”