The item which follows from Anne Dunn*, was forwarded to me by my sister, Flo, June 8, 2015. We had been trying to decide on an appropriate Native American recipient of a financial gift in honor of our Aunt Edithe. Edithe had been especially attentive to Native American fundraising appeals.
Anne’s commentary was originally on her Facebook page, and is forwarded with her permission. It helped Flo and I decide that Billy Mills organization “Running Strong“, was a good recipient for a family gift in memory of Aunt Edithe.
I HAVE BEEN TOLD
Billy Mills, Running Strong
Billy Mills is the second Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. Jim Thorpe had won two gold medals in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Mills ran the 10,000 -meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to become the only American to ever win the gold in this event. His victory has been considered one of the greatest Olympic upsets.
A former United States Marine, he is a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. He was born (June 30, 1938) in Pine Ridge, South Dakota He was orphaned at age 12 and raised on the reservation by his grandmother. He took up running while attending the Haskell Institute (Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence Kansas.
After he graduated he joined the USMC. He was a First Lieutenant in the Marine reserves when he competed in the 1964 Olympics.
He later set US records for 10,000 m (28:17.6) and the three-mile run, and had a 5,000 m best of 13:41.4. In 1965 he and Gerry Lindgren both broke the world record for the six-mile run. They finished in a tie at AAU National Championships, running 27:11.6.
On February 15, 2013, Mills met with President Obama at the White House to receive the Presidential Citizens Award for his work with Running Strong for American Indian Youth. His broad based nonprofit humanitarian organization has international ties. The medal is the nation’s second highest civilian award
In 1983 a movie was made of his life. “Running Brave” features Robby Benson in the starring role.
I met Billy Mills many years ago. We were standing over a garbage can at a school picnic on the Red Lake reservation. I was working for the Bemidji school district and had been asked to chaperone a group of Native American students that had been invited to the event.
He was disposing of his paper plate, plastic utensils and milk carton when I asked him for his (already been used) spoon. He was a bit unnerved by the unusual request but he put the spoon into my waiting hand. Then I asked for his milk carton, too. Now he was curious.
“Why do you want these things?”
“I will donate the carton to the school athletic department,” I told him. “I’ll ask that it be displayed in the trophy case. The spoon I will keep for a memento of the day I met Billy Mills.”
I suppose he was mildly flattered for he smiled and asked my name. Then he shook my hand and walked away.
The milk carton was accepted and placed in the trophy case where it stood for several years. Then, one day it disappeared! I suppose it looked like old garbage and someone had tossed it into the trash.
At first, I showed the spoon to everyone. But almost no one believed my story. The problem was that it looked like a hundred billion other plastic spoons. So one day I put it in my jewelry box and didn’t take it out for several years.
Then Florence Hedeen called to tell me that Billy Mills was going to speak at the school in Park Rapids. I decided to attend and to take the spoon with me. My friend LeRoy Chief, also from Pine Ridge, said he would ask Mills to autograph the unremarkable spoon.
The next problem was… would Billy Mills remember? Would he think I was just some old groupie trying to get his attention?
I arrived at the high school to find several friends waiting. They had saved a front row seat for me. Afterwards I approached the world-renowned speaker and asked if he would sign my spoon? He smiled and greeted me like an old friend! I took the spoon from my pocket. He whipped out his sharpie and wrote: “Billy Mills Olympic 10 K Gold.”
The event made front page news! There we were above the fold! A blurry black and white image of me with Billy Mills and the remarkable plastic spoon!
Years later he would visit the Bugonaygeshig School and run with students and staff. My daughter Annie was working there at that time. They were both former marines and ran together. After a few minutes she asked if he remembered her mother and the plastic spoon. He stopped in his tracks and gasped, “That woman is your mother?”
Mills, also known as Makata Taka Hela, lives in Fair Oaks, California, but still travels for his non-profit agency as an inspirational speaker.
I met him again when I attended a wellness conference for seniors at the Black Bear Casino Hotel (June 2010). Marlene Stately and I were sharing room 339. When I saw Billy Mills eating alone in the dining room, I dragged Marlene to his booth and introduced us.
He was so gracious! He pretended to remember me but was actually quite baffled until I mentioned my Marine daughter and the plastic spoon. Then he offered us a hearty smile and invited us to sit with him.
We sat with him for about 30 minutes and we spoke of many things. It was exciting to hear this famous man speaking with passion about helping his fellow Native Americans.
He likes to quote his father: “Follow your dreams. Every dream has a passion. Every passion has its destiny.”
His father also told him, “Know yourself and find your desire.” With desire comes self-motivation. Then comes work. With work comes success.
He ran a 5k fun run on New Year’s Eve about three years ago. Not only his daughters but his wife beat him! He saw them waiting for him to come in. I’m sure he thought about his glory days.
When had he become an old man with bad knees?
Let me leave you with more encouraging words from my hero, Billy Mills:
“God has given me the ability. The rest is up to me. Believe. Believe. Believe.”
“My life is a gift from my Creator. What I do with my life is my gift back to Creator.”
“What I took from the Olympic Games was not winning an Olympic gold medal but an understanding of global unity through dignity of character and pride of global diversity. And global unity through global diversity is also the future of mankind.”
“The ultimate is not to win, but to reach within the depths of your capabilities and to compete against yourself to the greatest extent possible. When you do that, you have dignity. You have the pride. You can walk about with character and pride no matter in what place you happen to finish.”
* – Anne M. Dunn is a long-time and wonderful friend, an Anishinabe-Ojibwe grandmother storyteller and published author. She makes her home in rural Deer River, MN, on the Leech Lake Reservation. She can be reached at twigfigsATyahooDOTcom. She has several previous posts at Outside the Walls. You can read them all here.
A personal story about Red Lake, experienced in August, 1988, can also be found here.