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Wahpepah-Harris: The Next Billy Mills?

Star runner Mackenzie Wahpepah-Harris, Kickapoo, is good enough to be the next Billy Mills.

A couple of years ago the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Billy Mills Kickapoo Tribe Cross Country Park in honor of the famed runner and in an effort to promote healthy lifestyles in Indian Country.

I have only had the opportunity to meet Billy Mills once, when I was a student-athlete at Haskell Indian Nations University. He spoke “up the hill” at the University of Kansas, which I would eventually attend, and he had previously been an All-American prior to his legendary goal medal run in the Olympics.

Like Mills, I have only met Mackenzie Wahpepah-Harris (Kickapoo) once. It was by chance this past month, though without realizing it I had known his family for years. His little cousin Kee-tah-pih-kwah had been one of our students when my wife and I were running an indigenous language immersion preschool pilot in our home. His aunt and uncle are people we respect, though we did not know of the close family connection. How very small the Indian world always seems to be.

Our chance meeting would occur at a stadium in Oklahoma City, where my high school soccer team was about to begin a game. The field, like so many, was surrounded by a track where a university team was practicing. All I could see was that this young man was fast—and definitely Indian. During his practice I went up to his coach and asked if I would be able to speak with him. He answered in the affirmative, and during one of Mackenzie’s breaks we spoke. Like many Indian people, he was humble about his achievements. Fortunately there are many ways to find out the success of others and to ensure that the world is able to hear their story. When I found out he was Kickapoo, I immediately thought of his mother’s community near McLoud, Oklahoma, where my wife had once worked as a health & fitness director, and where I had been an invited speaker to one of their preschool events to speak to the importance of language immersion in Indian communities. I remember dropping by the fitness center to pick her up on one of our first dates. It has been 14 years since then. In some way the Kickapoo blessed our lives. Knowing the tribe on a peripheral level has allowed me some minor understanding of the importance of Mackenzie to both his tribe and the larger Indian world.

Over the generations, his Kickapoo people have been scattered across the states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as Mexico. Despite the forced removals and migrations they have endured, their traditional culture and language has been maintained in highly pronounced ways. This inability to be defeated or held down is a trait that Mackenzie Wahpepah-Harris was clearly born with; a form of blood memory and genetic transference.

As a long-distance runner, he has never heard the thunderous applause of high school football “Friday Nights” or gyms packed to the roof on Saturday evenings to watch high-flying athletes dunk basketballs or “shoot the lights out” players dropping threes. He chose a sport in which one can’t hide behind a teammate’s purported error as justification for a loss; a path that at times can be one of solitary experience, where the individual has complete responsibility for whatever result may come. In this sport where most participant names are unknown—until, like Billy Mills, they accomplish something of greatness on the international stage—he has found a home.

For those of us who have never run a 5K in under 15 minutes, Mackenzie is a sort of anomaly. Coming out of high school, Mackenzie was recruited by schools such as the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma City University. He chose the latter, a perennial powerhouse in the NAIA. With them he has since won two national championships.

Like University of Kansas alumni Mills, Mackenzie would also have an opportunity to prove his worth on his old campus during the Kansas Relays at Rock Chalk Park. During this meet he would place first in the 1,500-meter while running a personal best time. His awards are many, from his status as a former 6A high school champion to participating in and winning university races in the 1500m, mile, 3K, 5K, 8K and 15K. And identical to his much more well known counterpart, Mackenzie has been named an All-American. He has not only achieved this honor in the athletic arena but has also accomplished this top-level accomplishment as an academic All-American Which begs the question, “How good can he become?” 

And so I directly asked him about a future career as a professional.

“I think I definitely have what it takes,” he said. “I mean, in high school my dream was to be a state champion, even though at the time that idea was in my head, the odds were severely against me. I never forgot about my dream and it was a truly beautiful moment when it became a reality.”

I pressed him further as to the importance of his Indian identity and its meaning in his athletic and community life. His response was quick and direct.

“I am very proud of my Native American heritage and my tribe and want to do everything I can to represent my tribe and heritage in a positive way,” he said.

One could easily envision him one day, an international medal in hand, traversing the distance between the Kickapoo communities from Kansas in the north to his home community in Oklahoma, down to his kin in Texas, and eventually on to Mexico. It would be at some junctures a retracing of loss and struggle, while at the same time providing a sense of unification and pride.

In listening to his coaches, family, friends and even a couple of individuals he competes against, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who doubts his ability, his integrity, his skill or his drive. Seeing him run and communicate also leave me without any doubts. In the coming years we will most likely find his name among Indian sports heroes such as Major League Soccer MVP Chris Wondolowski (Kiowa), New York Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo), and WNBA players Shoni Shimmel (Umatilla) and Angel Goodrich (Cherokee).

Buckysheno’s (that’s his Kickapoo name, Eagle Is Landing) 1,500m run at the National Championships on May 23 in Gulf Shores, Alabama, left him as the national runner-up (having missed a first place finish by 0.36 second). One place finish ahead of this year’s accomplishment and we may be placing his name alongside another even more well known Indian sports hero—Billy Mills.