When Billy Mills came off the final curve in that legendary 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, he heard his father’s voice telling him to soar on the wings of an eagle. It was at that point his spirit called out to his exhausted body and spent muscles, “I can win! I can win!”
Mills, whose Lakota name Makata Taka Hela means Respects the Earth, has been an icon in Indian Country ever since. Mills’ nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth is doing its part to jumpstart the dreams of Native youth by giving away fifty $10,000 grants over the next five years.
The Dreamstarter grant program is designed to help the Seventh Generation in its effort to move forward to greater accomplishments. Teams of nonprofit organizations, and one American Indian youth, will work together to complete a Dreamstarter application outlining their idea, along with funding needs, and how it will benefit youth.
“I thought about how I can give back for that one moment in time,” Mills told ICTMN. “I came to the conclusion: strength lies in the ability to dream. This program is designed to help a young person with a passion and a foresight to help make the community better in the areas we have outlined. Ten thousand dollars is not a lot, but it might be enough to turn some negative thoughts in the minds of young people and give them the hope and confidence to stay the course and make their dreams come true.”
The Dreamstarter program is in honor of the 50th anniversary of Mills becoming the only American in Olympic history to win the 10,000-meter race. But at the end of the day, it is about an elder passing along the ways that were taught to him. Mills was raised on the seven Lakota virtues: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility and wisdom. In many ways, the Dreamstarter program, which runs through 2020, follows those teachings. Each year it will address different needs in Native communities.
“We are making progress in Indian Country. One example is Pine Ridge. I know we’re making progress there,” said Mills. “We’ve done organic gardening projects and had incredible success in certain areas.”
One area of concern, he said, is the teen suicide rate among Native youth. Mills himself came close to making that decision after a photographer asked him to step aside during a photo shoot of NCAA All-Americans because he didn’t want a brown face in an all-white photograph. But Mills remembered his father’s words and the dream of becoming an Olympic champion helped “heal a broken soul.”
“I took our traditions. I took our spirituality and I extracted those values in whatever I did,” Mills said.
Native youth and organizational mentors from Dreamstarter-funded projects will participate in Dreamstarter Academy in Washington, D.C. during the week of April 20, 2015. The three-day academy is designed to develop leadership skills and help participants tell their stories in person, in writing, and online. It’s also a place where young people can meet others on the Red Road and receive guidance from Mills and the Running Strong team.
“These young people are our warriors of the future,” Mills said. “Our warriors of the 21st Century will be better prepared to fight our battles in the future. There are many, many young people that are listening and looking for direction. We’re still not really providing them with that clear path. So I hope this program can help with their dreams in some small way.”
If you are interested in becoming a Dreamstarter or mentor, go to IndianYouth.org and apply.