In the past 48 hours, I’ve scrolled past hundreds of social media posts imploring me to think carefully about how to commemorate this October 14th. Though I’m generally inspired by my peers’ vociferous denunciation of “Columbus Day” in support of “Indigenous Peoples Day”, their messages of resilience and education are coupled with accusatory reminders of genocide and slavery that ultimately steal the wind from my anti-Columbus sails.
This is not to say that I think our Nation’s shared heritage of treating Indigenous peoples badly should be shrouded. There are millions of Americans (& Native Americans for that matter) living fat and happy lives on hallowed ground that they absolutely take for granted. Increased exposure to the uncensored histories of colonialism might be just what this country needs to awaken the masses from their near-catatonic state of consumeristic bliss.
But why wait for “Indigenous Peoples Day” to educate the oblivious? Why alienate potential non-Native supporters of the holiday by using it as an annual opportunity to point fingers and stoke the fiery burn of white guilt? Why not use a federal holiday to celebrate the achievements of a true American hero AND the survivance of Indigenous Peoples?
Fifty-nine years ago to the day, Billy Mills- a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe- ran for gold in the 10,000 meters at the Games of the XVIII Olympiad. Perhaps more improbable than sailing a carrack across an ocean and making landfall on a “new” landmass during an age of royally funded imperial exploration, Mills managed to run a personal best of almost 50 seconds and out-kick the defending world record holder.
If you haven’t already, you MUST watch both of the following videos:
Though I’ve come to terms with the fact that non-runners might not experience the spine-tingling euphoria I feel each time I watch those videos, I dare any human being to tell me Billy’s story isn’t awe-inspiring. To this day, he is the only American ever to win gold in the 10,000 meters. If that’s not enough, perhaps it’ll help to know that he also ran a personal best in the 5K on the way to his landmark victory. For 28 minutes and 24.4 seconds, Mr. Mills refused to accept the impossible and laughed in the face of every person who every told him a half-breed from Pine Ridge would never amount to anything. If that’s not the essence of resilience, I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, “Columbus Day” doesn’t fall on October 14th every year. But the truth is Billy’s contribution to the spirit of humanity extends far beyond 10/14/1964. In the last few years I have had the good fortune to spend a great deal of time with Mr. Mills. Not once has he forsaken the opportunity to talk with me about what he likes to call “Olympic Idealism”- global unity through the character, dignity, and beauty of global diversity. From the living room of his own home to a podium in front of an audience of thousands, Billy uses his voice to advocate for unity, education, ambition and reconciliation.
On the anniversary of "The Greatest Track & Field Battle of the 20th Century", I can’t think of anyone better to replace Columbus than Billy Mills. If you need any more convincing, maybe Billy’s own words will do the trick: “It’s the journey, not the destination, that empowers us.”
My advice: stop marveling over the fact that Banksy sold “$225,000 worth of art for $420” yesterday and go for a run.