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.
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."
He says lack of direction has led to "social complexities" like alcoholism, drug abuse, and obesity among today's Indian population.
With his background, he's a natural to preach the benefits of shaping up, which he does as a public speaker and member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
Though many Indians could be more fit, the image of them running like deer has not changed entirely.
"There's still that ability to run," Mills says, attributing it to a way of life. This ability is particularly evident in about a dozen states, where all-Indian teams regularly win high school cross-country championships.
"Some of these runners," he says, "are among the finest in the United States coming out of high school, but they never develop. Very few will go on to collegE, and those that do will stay a year or so and drop out."
Billy says he came close to dropping out of the University of Kansas on numerous occasions. Adjusting to campus life was difficult, even if the surroundings weren't totally unfamiliar. He'd been living in Lawrence, Kan., attending the Haskell Indian School, which took in many orphans like him.
Mills earned an athletic scholarship to the university. But there were only four other Indian students on campus, and direct and indirect segregation existed. A national Fraternity officer once flew to Lawrence to bar Mills from membership in a local chapter. And on the track, it was not uncommon for a teammate to yell, "Got get 'em, Chief," innocent words that cut to the quick.
"In my senior year I was so inwardly torn with conflict that I quit almost 50 percent of my races," he recalls. Billy also had a physical problem that, until remedied, caused fluctuations in his running performance.
Although the top American finisher in the 1961 and '62 US cross-country championships, Mills generally found that the mental and physical turmoil conspired to thwart his potential. Thus, his career was basically considered an undistinguished one leading up the Olympics.
Out of collegE, he entered the Marine Corps, hoping to make the corps track team so he could train for the Olympics. He wasn't chosen at first and was headed to Okinawa. Before going, however, he made it to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he was given one month to prove himself, which he did.
During pre-Olympic training, his coach asked him how fast he thought he could run the 10,000. "About 28:50," he replied. Several days later, the coach came back and said, "That's not fast enough." Pressed to extend his limits, Mills decided he could expend a fingersnap's worth of extra effort per lap. In 25 laps, that meant 25 fewer seconds, so he entered "28 minutes, 25 seconds -- gold medal" in his workout book. The winning Olympic time was actually better, 28:24 .4!
At the halfway mark, Mills almost quit." I was within a second of may fastest three-mile time ever and was tired," he recalls.
Contemplating where so step off the track, he spotted his wife sitting amid a sea of japanese spectators. "She was the only one who knew me, who knew the struggles I'd gone through," he adds. "As I thought about those, I started telling myself, 'Hang on, hang on."
And, of course, he did, giving the Olympics a success story that lives as the quintessence of individual triumph.