As a young man studying at the University of Kansas, Billy Mills pursued a dream: to run in order to heal a broken soul. Billy lost his mother at age 8 and his father at age 12. Growing up within his Oglala Lakota community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota he remembered his father telling him that he had broken wings. As a means to remedy this, his father encouraged Billy to try sports. After years of training through passion and hard work, he went on to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games as an underdog, unranked in the United States, although he had the 8th fastest time in the world. It was here he was able to defy expectations and in the final lap of the 10,000 meter race pull ahead of the the rest to win gold for the United States, the only American in Olympic history to have ever done so in this category.
Billy later went on to help found Running Strong for American Indian Youth along with Eugene Krizek, a foundation dedicated to helping provide resources and hope to native communities around the country both on and off reservations. Today he is the foundation's spokesperson, and on Saturday, October 7 he will be speaking about his inspirational win at the All Nations Run 3k and 5k in Shingle Springs, CA. The event is being hosted by the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians and the Shingle Springs Health & Wellness Center with proceeds from the event benefitting the Running Strong Foundation.
Prior to the Running Strong Foundation and his Olympic career however, Billy found himself ready to commit suicide. “I wasn't ready for the racism in America,” he explained during an interview we had at his home one recent Friday afternoon. As a runner at his University, Billy says he was often asked to step out of the shot during group photo shoots. He quickly realized it was due to his Lakota heritage, adding yet another instance of racism for him to grapple with. “The third time I'm asked to get out of a photo, I broke. I'm on the verge of suicide.” But before he could, a voice that sounded like his father’s said, “Don't,” explaining if he kept going, someday he would have “wings of an eagle.” So Billy kept going with the confidence that he had been given “the ability not to win a gold medal, but to win a gold medal to heal a broken soul.” This became his dream. After marrying his wife Pat, serving as an officer in the Marines, and years of training hard, he saw this dream come to fruition during the Tokyo games. Mills says that there was a point during the final 95 meters of the run where he saw the embroidered image of an eagle on a German runner’s racing singlet, and was able to recall his father's words and know that he was going to win—even if he didn't get to the finish line first.
“I healed a broken soul, and in the process I won a gold medal. That moment was a gift and I wanted to give back.”
Winning did not end racism towards Mills and other members of his community however, and is still a presence felt by the hundreds of Native communities across the country. Billy says he has received death threats in the past, and can count 8 different occasions in recent years where people have used the term “prairie n***er” against him. He also makes clear that these are not isolated instances—Native Americans are regularly the victims of hateful rhetoric, and this particularly impacts Native youth. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, suicide is the second leading cause of death behind accidental death for Native youth ages 8 to 24, and there are much higher rates of suicidal behavior by youth reported in indigenous communities than any other racialized group.
“We have a beautiful country, and we've done wonderful things throughout the world,” says Mills. Still, events unfolding around our country today both frustrate and sadden him. “How far back are we going to go? Do we go back to the Doctrine of Discovery? Do we go back to Manifest Destiny? I think one of the moves that might happen if things continue the way they are, [is that] Congress with a stroke of a pen can totally eliminate the treaty rights that have been fought for. And tribal nations [own] 5-35% of the last known natural resources in America. We own it, but we don't control it.”
“We have US senators, US Congregational representatives elected to represent state sovereignties making decisions on tribal sovereignty. Therein lies the conflict. It would be like the senators from California, the congregational representatives from California making decisions for the constituency in South Dakota. So fundamental change there is going to be difficult.”
Mills points to the Doctrine of Discovery (tying into Manifest Destiny, which relies on the the belief that the land on which what many call the United States currently exists was a gift to European settlers from God) as one of the fundamental principles used time and time again to justify ugly events from our country's past and present. He also stresses that he is not attacking Christianity by saying this, stating that people were merely able to manipulate Christianity for their own benefit. From the taking of indigenous lands to the genocide of native people throughout history, as well as broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow, the use of the racial epithet “redskin” for a football team name, and the many examples of systematic racism that persist today, Billy believes that the fundamental lack of education and reflection on the dark realities of how the United States came to be prevents us from healing and moving forward together in unison.
For example, Mills offers a different way of looking at current NFL protests. As a veteran of the Marines and someone who has heard the national anthem in a sports arena, he understands the beautiful feeling of pride that can occur when one hears the anthem. Nevertheless, hearing it played also reminds him of all the work that is left to be done in our country. “The third stanza of our national anthem. You know what it says? It excludes people in bondage. So our national anthem is for everybody except the people in bondage, and in bondage at that point was the free Black person, the slave, and the Indian, so our national anthem today excludes them. That's the basis of the issue today and we don't talk about it. I would have every high school, every college, every business corporation discussing it. Just take it line by line and discuss it.” The third stanza he is making reference to here is a lesser known part of the national anthem, as we typically only sing the first stanza. You can read the anthem in its entirety here. The last sentence in the third stanza reads as follows:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In Mills's opinion, what we need to be focusing on here in the United States is education on these issues that impact people's lives on a daily basis. Some Americans have an understanding of these laws and their histories, while the majority do not. On Mills's part, he says he had a lot of learning to do before he reached the understanding of them that he carries today. During the 2008 US presidential elections Billy was reading multiple books a week in an effort to educate himself fully on the systems at play. He would ask friends from around the world, including Olympians, scholars, and other members of the global community, about their own unique perspectives. It was clear to him they received a better education on subjects such as the Doctrine of Discovery than the majority of Americans seem to have, so he valued their views. “They would ask me, 'have you studied your own history?' And I would say, 'yes'. Then I'd come back and start studying more to understand where they were coming from.”
In all, Billy seems hopeful about our future, so long as we take the time to understand how our paths led us here. As the child of a mother who was a quarter Lakota, and a father who was three quarters Lakota, he has seen life through a lens of intersectionality. “I started putting all that together—why I came so close to suicide. I know what is is to be broken, and yet, the other half of me on occasion was offered what is being called white privilege. And the only way I can describe white privilege is a very innocent, very positive, confident righteousness. [It is having an] expectation of what you can do, and not realizing the roadblocks that are removed for you.” Mills told a story about ordering lunch at a restaurant with a corporal friend while he was in the Marines. Yet when it came time to eat, the corporal, who was also African American, was told he would have to eat in the kitchen. Billy followed him into the kitchen to eat with him, but after asking Billy to leave, and Billy refusing, both were told to leave and they took their food elsewhere. “I have to count on him, he has to count on me, in case of war. We have to understand one another.” At the same time, Mills understood he could not escape the rampant racism towards people of color in the United States. As a youth he knew he would never be afforded the American Dream, and realizes today that the only reason he achieved it was through a successful running career.
Through running, Billy healed himself. When asked why he chose running, Mills laughed and said it was a process of elimination. He tried rodeo (“That hurt,” he smiled). Later he tried boxing, and he also played basketball but ended up scoring 2 points for the wrong team. Running he was good at, and it carried him through difficult times.
Near the end of the interview Billy's wife Pat came out to sit with us. An accomplished painter, Pat and Billy have been married for over 50 years. When Billy realized he had won gold in Tokyo, the first person he asked to see was her. Some playful banter ensued between the two about how they first met. Both remembered it a bit differently—it's clear they've had this discussion several times before. One can tell however that neither of them really care about coming up with an answer so much as remembering a long and happy life together with their four daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Today, Mills works alongside the Running Strong Foundation, giving speeches like the one he will be giving this Saturday at the All Nations Run in the hopes of inspiring people to strive for their full potential. Billy Mills's story is one of exemplary courage and perseverance. Yet he needed help and guidance, and while he realizes this same level of courage and perseverance lives within the hearts and souls of Native youth everywhere, Mills has recognized that many of them also need the opportunity to receive a hope similar to that which he has been given by his family and culture.
When Billy went to find the German runner after the race to tell him how the eagle on his singlet had inspired him to win, he found that there wasn't one anywhere on their uniform. “It was simply a perception.” A perception that helped bring him the wings of an eagle.
The best way to hear Billy Mills's story in its entirety about his inspirational 1964 Tokyo win is by attending the All Nations Run this Saturday, October 7th. This family friendly run will feature a 3k and 5k, which you are welcome to walk or run. Obstacles and Halloween costumes will be a fun and optional part of the event, and prizes will be given for the best costume! A BBQ lunch after the run will be held where Billy will speak. Pre-registration includes a race shirt, medal, and lunch, but race day registration is available also, with shirts and medals being available while supplies last.
10:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Shingle Springs Rancheria's Event Field
Shingle Springs Dr & Lincoln Hwy & US-50
$20 General/Adult (18 years and older)
$10 Student and Children (12 and under)
$5 Participant's Guest, Lunch Only
RACE DAY REGISTRATION
$25 General/Adult (18 years and older)
$15 Student and Children (12 and under)
$5 Participant's Guest, Lunch Only