It was nearly 30 years ago that as a cub reporter for the Rapid City Journal I first met Billy Mills, the Lakota man who set the world on its ear by winning the 10,000 meter Gold Medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
I saw Manny Moran, an old classmate of mine from Holy Rosary Indian Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School), entering Billy Mills Hall. I chased after him to shake his hand and say hello. He went into an office in the back of the building and I followed him and there, as big as life, was Billy Mills sitting on the edge of a table.
Now over the years I have interviewed people all the way from former Senator Tom Daschle to David Halberstam and I was never intimidated, but when I came face-to-face with Billy Mills I was tongue-tied. I stammered out a weak “hello,” shook his hand, and then retreated to a corner of the room to take notes.
I also found it ironic that we were seated in an office inside of Billy Mills Hall, the building that was named for the former resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A story I had heard a couple of weeks before popped into my head. The story goes that a Lakota man who had obviously imbibed on the local bootleg liquor spotted Mills as he was entering the building named after himself.
The man, obviously jealous of the success of Mills, shouted, “Hey Billy, I’m going to burn this building down because it is named after you.” Quite calmly Mills replied, “No, don’t do that. Just change the name.”
I think all of us are more intimidated by one of our peers than of strangers, no matter their station in life. During World War II a former student of Holy Rosary Mission, now a U. S. Marine, named Clement Crazy Thunder, came home on leave. Before he left to join the Corps he told several students at the school that when he came home he would bring a 10 gallon container of ice cream and ladle it out to all of the boys.
And then one day there he was standing at the back of a pickup truck next to a large container of ice cream with a scooper in hand. All of us little guys were intimidated. We stood around him shyly as he scooped the ice cream on to paper plates and handed them out to the boys. Two months later the name of Clement Crazy Thunder was mentioned by Father Collins at a High Mass celebration. He had been killed in action on Iwo Jima.
I think most Americans know the story of Billy Mills. This very poor Lakota boy from the reservation of my birth went on to the University of Kansas, took up long distance running, and became the first and only American ever to win the 10,000 meter race in an Olympics.
His triumph was the equivalent of the achievements of the great horses of this era, Secretariat and Citation. They also set records that have not been topped many years later. It is alright to compare a Lakota man to a horse and I’m sure Mills would agree. The horse is Sunka Wakan (Holy Dog) and is sacred to the Lakota. It is more than a four-legged animal, it is a kindred spirit.
I have watched the tape of Billy Mills winning his Gold Medal and it never ceases to amaze and excite me. As the runners head around the final turn they are led by Ron Clarke of Australia and Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia. Gammoudi elbows past Clarke and pushes Mills aside knocking him off of his stride. Mills falls way back as they round the turn and head for the tape. Clarke takes the lead again, but out of nowhere, running the race of his life, Billy Mills passes Clarke and Gammoudi to take the Gold Medal. He ran the race 46 seconds better than his best ever time.
His victory was one of the greatest feats in the history of the Olympics. Mills became the first and last American to ever win the 10,000 meter race. He now lives near Fair Oaks, California with his wife Pat, and three daughters, Christy, Lisa, and Billy JoAnne.
Billy Mills has become one of the great motivational speakers in Indian country. It is his goal to motivate the Indian youth of today to rise above their hardships and to never give up. I heard him speak last year at South Dakota State University and I could feel the excitement electrifying the audience.
With the Olympics starting this week in China, I could not help but bring back the memory of one of the all-time Olympic greats and to express the pride I feel in being a friend of this Oglala Lakota warrior.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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