Today is Columbus Day, the annual celebration or tribute to Christopher Columbus the “discoverer” of America. Generally Columbus Day is a time of year filled with articles rethinking Columbus’ legacy. Popular this year is a comic by the website The Oatmeal that discusses Columbus as the first of many conquerors that enacted a terrible genocide against Native American people and the father of the transatlantic slave trade. The comic strip explains all the factual errors that we’ve been taught about Columbus’ exceptionality and offers an alternative hero to honor. The illustrator instead suggests that we celebrate the life of Bartolome de la Casas, who he argues was a similar person to Columbus who underwent a transformation and became a humanitarian working for equality among African slaves and Native Americans. While I don’t know enough about de le Casas to fully comment on this discussion, I have my own alternative hero to celebrate this year.
On October 14th, 1964 Billy Mills won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Mills became the first (and only) American to ever win that event. Prior to the race, he was mostly unknown to the international track and field community, and domestically he was remembered for his lackluster collegiate career at the University of Kansas. It is not hyperbolic at all to say that Mills shocked the world with his victory.
For many fans of sport, the Mills victory ends there. Yet, if you talk to Mills, he’ll tell you that 1964 was really the starting point. Billy Mills is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where he was orphaned at the age of 12. Then he was sent to the Haskell Institute (a Native American Boarding school) for high school. His family remained close with his one of his older and younger brothers also attending the school. But the boarding school experience, as many scholars have noted, was brutal for many Native Americans as they were stripped of many of their cultural, linguistic, and familial ties. Boarding schools were progressive era institutions and the legacy of centuries of colonial rule. By the 1950s things had changed a little, but living in a white-mans world still remained tough. Mills coped with the aid of a sport and the guidance of his coach Tony Coffin.
Mills excelled at cross country and track during his high school days at Haskell. During his career he broke the state records of two Olympians (Glenn Cunningham in the indoor mile, and Wes Santee for the 2 mile cross country run). After he graduated, Mills decided to stay in Lawrence, Kansas and compete for Bill Easton at the University of Kansas. Easton was one of the leading track coaches of the era and KU one of the top schools. They’d won the 1952 NCAA Cross Country Championship and placed well at the indoor and outdoor meets throughout the decade. Mills time at KU was tough. He had an up-and-down career and often clashed with his coach. Although he won a Big 8 championship and was named an All-American, he career was a disappointment to many as he failed to live up to their expectations.
In January of 1962, Mills graduated from KU and entered the U.S. Marine Corps. He entered the Marines partly because of the Native American tradition of military service, but also under the advisement of former Olympian and KU Alum, Wes Santee. Santee explained that military service allowed former athletes to remain amateurs and offered support that allowed them to train for the Olympics. During the Cold War, having military officers compete in the Olympics was a point of pride for the country and gave bragging rights to each of the service branches.
The military helped position Mills towards success. He was diagnosed as hypoglycemic and developed a better diet to manage his blood sugar and energy levels while running. Likewise, he was introduced to new training methods. In the marines, Mills began running longer distances and benefited from the experience of his training partner, Alex Breckenridge.
By the 1964 Olympics, Mills was a different athlete. He was the only American to qualify in two different track events, the 10,000m and the marathon. Although he was largely unknown, his time coming into the race was the eight fastest in the world that year. Mills hung with the leaders during the race and stayed in contention well into the final lap. Then he started to make his move. It was a three-man race. He was shoved as the entered the final turn, but soon recovered. With fifty meters to go he finally made his move. He lifted his knees and lengthened his stride, sprinting his hardest. Quickly approaching Ron Clarke, he moved out to lane four and flew by. As the world shifted its gaze, NBC announcer Dick Bank screamed, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” A couple of strides later he overtook Muhamed Gammoudi for first and kept going. Three strides in the lead Mills broke the tape. He had done the impossible.
Now forty-nine years later, Mills is continuing to do the impossible and change the world. He founded Running Strong for Native American Youth in 1986, and since then has raised over $650 million to build wells, youth centers, and improve the conditions of Native Americans. He’s also traveled to over 300 countries telling his story and advocating for the global indigenous issues and self-determination in deciding how to use their economic and natural resources.
Today is Billy Mills Day on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, not Columbus Day. I think it should be Billy Mills Day for us all. Obviously, the story of Billy Mills is important to me and most Native Americans, but I think it should be important to all of us. His life is an example of the power of sport to enact and fuel change. His story is inspiring and uplifting, but it also exposes real structural and racial issues in our society. Billy Mills is an American hero worth celebrating and honoring, much more so than Christopher Columbus.