In the mid-1990s I had the honor to meet Billy Mills, the second Native American to ever win an Olympic Gold medal and the subject of the 1984 film Running Brave. This United States Marine told of us his struggle to achieve his goals, and the types of prejudice he encountered along the way. His story affected me so much that I choose to honor him in a way that others thought was a radical decision. Actually, it did not seem at all outrageous to me it made perfect sense.
One of the projects Billy Mills was involved in was the removal of offensive Native American mascots from the athletic departments of universities in the United States. His plea deeply touched me. The mascot of the university where I graduated was a caricature of a member of an Indian tribe, including a politically insensitive tag-line. Many Native Americans found this offensive, and they had waged battles against the school to have the mascot retired. They always lost.
When I returned to my office after Billy’s presentation, I wrote to the President of the school I graduated from and asked to have my name taken off of any school records. I advised him that I would reinstate my name after the mascot was changed.
I saw Billy again that week, and I told him what I had done. I still cherish the autographed copy of “Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding“ that he gave me that day, and I will never forget the tears that welled up in his eyes as he signed his book.
I got a nice letter back from my university, stating that they were sorry I felt the way I did, but that the name was steeped in tradition and it was going to be retained. I am under no false illusions that my actions had any impact on my school’s position. On the other hand, it was important for me to take a stance about an issue of which I felt strongly.
I would hope that each of us would do that at least once in our life.
To Makata Taka Hela – one of my heroes!