FLAGSTAFF - Shortly after his mother's death, young Billy Mills picked up a book about the Olympics and read how the ancient Greeks believed that athletes were chosen by the gods. This left a lasting impression on Mills, who went on to win the gold in Japan in 1964. He now travels the world with his story of motivation and hope. On Nov. 13, Mills met Native American students from reservation communities at different schools in Flagstaff.
"Socrates said that 'With achievement comes honor. Honor comes with responsibility,'" Mills said. "I am a Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge. (His Lakota name is Makata Taka Hela or "Respects the Earth.") We are a people who tell stories. We don't tell stories just to tell stories; we tell stories to learn values and spirituality."
Mills was orphaned at the age of 12, and began running with a passion at boarding school. He later ran for Haskell Indian School and on scholarship at the University of Kansas. Upon graduation, Mills joined the Marine Corps and began seriously training for the Olympics. At the age of 26, he qualified for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Still, no one expected him to win-a fact revealed to him on the bus to the Olympic Village.
"I got on the bus, and there was an empty seat next to Randy Matson, and another next to a beautiful woman from Poland. I took the one next to the beautiful woman," Mills said with a grin. "She spoke perfect English, and she asked me, 'Who do you think is going to win the 10k?' I turned to her and said, 'I'm going to win.'"
"'What's your name?' she asked. "'Billy Mills,' I told her, and there was no more dialogue."
Mills won, even though the path to the Olympics was threaded with hardship and personal doubt. Even as he ran in half-inch spikes through the muddy cinders of the Olympic track, he planned on quitting; but memories of his father's words, his adopted sister's own achievements and his perception that the dominant society believed that American Indians have nothing to contribute kept him running. Knowing that his wife, Patricia, was in the audience, he kept running-and he pressed on, winning the gold.
"That medal counted coup on all the world," Mills said.
Mills described what he called a "strange time" in history, where people can turn on the television and view the war in Iraq; see governments destroyed and recreated and businesses restructured. It is, he said, time to prepare for changes.
"We hear about homeland security," Mills said forcefully. He explained that his idea of homeland security is the development of young people's minds in critical thinking.
"We can no longer have leadership by consensus," Mills said. "It was leadership by consensus that brought us the signing of treaties between 560 tribes and the breaking of every one of those treaties."
Today's world needs intelligent and adaptive minds, Mills said.
"We need to make people who face change while feeling less threatened-people who can invest in a powerful opportunity to choreograph change," Mills continued. "The greatest challenge in the world today is not necessarily Al Qaeda, but our perceptions and how we deal with those perceptions."
Mills illustrated the concept by describing his relationship with actor Robby Benson-who played Mills in the 1984 movie "Running Brave." The men have run together in races over the years-and Mills remembered one in particular that would take them past a group of schoolchildren who were excited at seeing Billy Mills.
"We were asked to wave when we ran by the school," Mills laughed. "So we were running side by side as agreed until we were 500 feet from the little ones, and Robby took off. That's when I decided to throw in some 29-year-old moves on my 60 year old body. I caught him, and I heard those kids say, 'Here they come, here comes the Indian guy'-and they pointed to my friend ... who is Jewish. That was the perception those kids had.
"Remember, it's how we deal with the perceptions," Mills continued. "Then I heard another kid say, 'Well, if that old man would get out of the way, we could see Robby Benson.' Talk about perceptions, I started looking for the old man," Mills laughed as he pantomimed deflation of ego.
Mills visited the Nazi death camp, Daschau, and personally witnessed the rooms and devices of genocide-the experience moved him to tears, and it was there he vowed never again to feel sorry for himself.
Billy had occasion to attend other Olympics with his family, and told about an experience where they sat behind a group of men discussing races of the past and about that "Indian guy who won the gold medal back in 1964." As one man wondered what had happened to the Indian guy, his daughter encouraged him to speak up and tell them who he was.
"I'll tell you what happened to that Indian guy," another man said. "He's like all the rest of Indian people. They're good athletes, but they are real quitters. I know that Indian guy is an alcoholic and drug addicted. That's how they all are," the bus rider said.
"My daughter had never seen me drink, I'd never done drugs, and she kept urging me to say something," Mills said.
"I stood up and said to the man, 'Excuse me sir, are you thinking about Billy Mills?'" Mills said.
"'Yes, that's his name, Billy Mills,' the man said.
"I know Billy Mills. By choice alcohol has never passed his lips. By choice he has never done drugs. He has raised $28 million for charities worldwide, Mills said.
"'Wow, you sure know a lot about Billy Mills,' the man said to me, and I told him, I know a lot about Billy Mills because I am Billy Mills.'"
Mills was asked to support Native American mascots and team names.
"They said, 'Come on Billy, you are an athlete, help us keep our mascots. They are there to honor your people.' I told them that they had taken our culture and put the shell on a shelf with these mascots. I told them that it wouldn't destroy me, but it doesn't honor me."
As a result, Mills was spit on, called racial epitaphs and not one team, coach or university representative would address the issue with him.
"We must chose the words we speak carefully because once we say them we can never take them back," Mills said. "My father told me, 'Son, your life is a gift from the Creator. What you do with your life is your gift to the Creator.'"