'64 hero still running -- to help his people
Since his astonishing victory in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympics, Billy Mills has stood as a symbol of what Indian people can accomplish in modern America. He has achieved success as an insurance agent and been a guiding force behind the Billy Mills Indian Youth Leadership Program.Skip to next paragraph
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So many years and Olympic heroes have intervened since he made history, Mills often has to refresh the memories of those who've heard his name but can't place it.
His fame was forged in one white-hot moment of athletic brilliance. An unknown on the international track scene, he came from nowhere to win the Olympic 10,000 in Tokyo, a feat never before or since achieved by an American runner.
After months of imagining himself outkicking Ron Clarke, the favorite, he did just that, passing the Australian and Clarke's top rival, Mohamed Gammoudi, in the last 100 yards.
Asked later if he had been worried about Mills during the race, Clarke replied, "Worry about him? I never heard of him."
Though not quite the case, Clarke was obviously as dumbfounded as anyone else to find Mills accepting the gold medal. After all, Billy had only run the distance competitively four other times, and never with spectacular results. In fact, he improved his previous best time by an incredible 52 seconds to win.
Victory was a goal of sorts, but only because it motivated a personal search. "In retrospect," hesays, "I ran 45,000 miles during a 15-year track career, not to win the gold medal, but to gain a better understanding of who I am as a human being."
That knowledge prepared Mills to stand tall in the face of criticism several years ago when militants seized Wounded Knee, a small town on his old South Dakota reservation. Activists constantly challenged him to explain how an Indian could dress in three-piece suits and sell life insurance.
How to remain Indian, he explains, is a burning issue among "Indian people." (The words "people," "persons," etc., generally follow 'Indian" in his conversation.) Mills, who now lives in Sacramento, Calif., considers the insurance business compatible with his Indian identity. Insurance policies, he feels, provide the economic base of support that today's Indian families need.
In view of his own business background, it's not surprising that one objective of the youth leadership program is to promote an awareness of the free-enterprise system, an alien concept to many Indians. Grasping this idea is important to the wise administration of valuable Indian lands, he feels.
"In America today," Mills points out, "1 1/2 million Indian people control about 1 percent of the land base. Yet on that land are an estimated 5 to 30 percent of [this country's] known natural resources. This wealth leads to complications, with both the private sector and other countries approaching the tribal leadership about developing or exploiting these resources."
Billy wants his people to be prepared for present-day challenges. He also wants them to regain lost meaning in their lives. "We rejected the life we were thrust into, and likewise, the dominant society rejected us," he explains. "The result has been a vacuum in which there are no goals, no commitments, and therefore, no accomplishment."