Celebrating Billy Mills, Native Athlete and Advocate

His Lakota name is “Tamakoce Te’Hila” (“Loves His Country”). To many, though, he is better known as Billy Mills, an Olympic athlete and icon for many aspiring athletes. And on March 6, South Dakota celebrates Billy Mills Day to recognize Billy’s achievements and the many ways he’s fought for our communities.

A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Mills is celebrated as an athlete, an advocate for Indigenous people and a loving father and grandfather. Like many others from the reservations, Billy’s life came with struggles. He became an orphan at a young age but was able to overcome his pain and build a life of his own, becoming the first Native American to win the Olympic Gold Medal for the 10,000-meter run in 1964.

His lifetime achievements, including serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, contributed to his fame and gave Billy a platform to help others. In 1986, he co-founded Running Strong, a nonprofit with a mission to create sustainable change in Indigenous communities across America. The organization focuses on cultural preservation and has raised millions of dollars over the years to address the needs of Native youth.

When I met Billy Mills, he was speaking in support of changing the name of the Washington Redskins pro sports team, now known as the Washington Football Team. He fights to rectify transgressions against Native Americans (both past and ongoing) and to ensure a better life for those living in tribal communities. He brings his Lakota values to his everyday life and reminds us to be community minded in today’s world, practicing discipline in a world stricken by the pandemic.

Last year, Billy spoke of his eagerness to attend the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. He understood the need for postponement and said the Games would help “revitalize the world” in 2021.

To this day, his advocacy rings within me. Billy will forever hold a place in my mind as someone who not only defied the odds to succeed as a world-class athlete, but also as a warrior and advocate who continues to be a beacon of hope for our people. On this Billy Mills Day, I encourage you to spread the positivity and compassion with the world around you, much like Billy does.

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