Mills won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with a stirring, come-from-behind victory in the final 30 meters. Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the 74-year-old Mills — an Oglala Lakota Sioux — has been one of the leading voices of diversity for decades. Mills participated in an event with students from Omaha South on Friday before giving a presentation at UNO’s College of Public Affairs and Community Service.
Q: When did you discover you had both a love and talent for racing?
A: My sophomore year in high school in the third cross country race of my life I won a 2-mile race on a hilly course in the fall of 1954 in 9:28. The next day I went to the library at the Haskell school and started reading this article about myself in the Topeka paper. My high school coach came in with several papers tucked under his arm and told me I could send these back home to Pine Ridge.
He noticed I had been reading this article over and over. He told me just don’t read about yourself, you’re going to continue to improve and there are going to be a lot more articles written about you. So I started reading about things locally, nationally, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things going on. McCarthyism, Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka. Running led me to that.
Q: What lessons did you learn at Kansas to help you become such a competitor and form your outlook on life?
A: Kansas was a real challenge for me. I experienced more cultural shock going to the University of Kansas than any of the 106 countries I’ve been to since then. I was young and naive and sheltered, and going from Pine Ridge to Kansas was like a big maze where I kept getting lost. But I came out feeling educated and I learned a lot more lessons about life than how to train and run. The University of Kansas provided me opportunities to, in a sense, educate myself.
Q: You ran for Bill Easton at Kansas. Did he help you more on or off the track, and who were other people who helped you reach your goal of Olympic gold?
A: He helped me more as an individual to be a man than he helped me as a coach. The distance running world was rapidly changing, but Easton wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t let me do speed work, for example. This was just the times we were living in then (early 1960s), but he would tell me, ‘Son, you’re an Indian. Indians run forever.’
I told Coach, ‘I don’t want to run forever. I want to run fast.’ Then after I joined the Marine Corps after college, Tommy Thompson, who won gold medals running hurdles for Canada, then was the track coach at the Naval Academy for 30 years, saw me at Camp Pendleton. He saw that Easton wasn’t getting the best out of me, and he came to me and said the right words. He said ‘I don’t want to be your coach; I want to be your mentor.’
This may sound strange, but Tommy Thompson was the first white man I ever trusted. He touched my chest with his hand and said, ‘You have to let me inside.’ That made it easy for me to trust the direction he would give me.
Q: The path to your Olympic success wasn’t always smooth, was it?
A: When I first truly made the commitment to running, I was on the verge of suicide. I was a junior in college and I was going to jump from the fourth floor. But then I heard a voice that sounded like my dad, and all it said was ‘Don’t.’ I got off the chair, wrote down my goal of winning the gold medal in the 10,000 meters at the Olympics, and that was the maturing of the dream. What I wanted to do was heal a broken soul. Then at the Olympics, I had that feeling I had down the backstretch, felt like I had the wings of an eagle. I thought, ‘I may never be this close again, so I have to do it now.’ Another feeling I had was that I’m going to win, but I may not get to the tape first. But I did both.
Q: Before diversity became a political buzzword, how did you approach this topic when speaking to people?
A: It might have been new to America but wasn’t new to the world. I learned it through sport competing against so many people who have become lifelong friends from completely different backgrounds. Here’s what I took from sport that made diversity so easy to embrace. One is that it’s the journey, not the destination where our empowerment comes from. Two, it’s the daily decisions we make in life that choreographs our destiny, and three is the beauty of global diversity comes from the dignity and character we display toward each other. It’s the future of human kind. We’re still a little fearful of change, but by participating in it, we can choreograph our change.
Q: Over the past couple of decades, there have been times of controversy about the use of Indian names as mascots for schools and sports teams. How do you view those discussions?
A: It becomes very trite. Sports for sports sake can be meaningless, but sports to empower can be sacred. If a university wants to empower or honor us, maybe they become an advocate for other things like convincing the bar association in their state to make Indian Law a full-fledged subject on their exams, not just one or two questions.
All 50 states should have Indian Law as a bar exam subject, but only two states — New Mexico and Washington — require a proficiency in federal, state and Indian law, even though every year 2.5 to 20 percent of the cases before the United States Supreme Court pertain one way or another to tribal treaty rights. If mascots can be a way to make more people aware of changes like this that are needed, then it can be helpful.