After writing about the need for Washington’s NFL franchise to drop its racist nickname, I heard from dozens of readers who said they had never met a Native American who opposed the Redskins moniker.
Meet Billy Mills, who delivered an inspiring, shocking upset in the 1964 Olympic 10,000 meters, sprinting from behind in the final stretch to seize a gold medal. The photo of Mills crossing the finish line, his face full of exhausted joy, ranks among the most precious images in American sports history.
He’s a member of the Lakota Nation. He’s traveled across the vast globe, making stops in 108 nations. He’s a proud Marine who voted for Ronald Reagan. “A big fan,” he said. He talked often during an hour-long conversation about “our beautiful country.”
Meet Billy Mills, who vehemently opposes the Redskins moniker.
“If somebody said hi to me and then said, ‘Hey, how’s the Redskin doing,’ I think you would have to see a lack of sensitivity,” Mills said. “It would offend me. The only time I’ve been referred to as a Redskin has been in derogatory ways.
“A Redskin has to do with the bounties placed on Native Americans. A bounty was paid if you could bring in the scalp, a Redskin. Where and to what point do we start accepting it as a badge of honor?”
Mills asks a vital, troubling question. How did millions of sports fans wander into the confused state of believing this degrading nickname serves as a badge of honor?
“How can America allow this?” Mills asked wearily.
This is a question he’s asked for decades, and he refuses to back down, despite the fury of his opponents. He spoke against use of the Fighting Sioux nickname in North Dakota, objecting to what he calls a “slur.”
Supporters of the Fighting Sioux nickname spit at him, he said. One Fighting Sioux supporter called Mills a ”prairie nigger.”
Mills declines to return anger for anger. He feels pity for those who attacked him.
“There’s a tremendous fear in this country to the idea of change,” he said. “We retaliate. We withdraw. I see that fear of change in this issue of the mascots.”
A few years ago, I heard from dozens of North Dakota fans who promised the Fighting Sioux moniker would stand forever, victorious against the evil forces who sought to defend the dignity of the Lakota Nation.
The Fighting Sioux moniker is gone, largely because the residents of North Dakota voted to banish use of the nickname by their state university. Democracy evicted an antique, insulting nickname.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder talks with the same emphatic language once used by North Dakota fans. He never will change his team’s nickname, he promises, even going all caps “NEVER” in his boast.
Mills laughed as he considered Snyder’s brazen confidence. The laugh was both sad and hopeful.
“It’s a rapidly changing world, and there’s no never,” Mills said in response to Snyder’s “NEVER” promise. “Things are changing so fast in our world.”
And the preposterous logic that a sports franchise can honor Native Americans with a slur?
“That’s beginning to collapse,” Mills said. “The name will be changed. How soon? How many more legal battles? I don’t know.”
Mills never will surrender. He knows he’s part of a noble crusade. And he knows the truth keeps marching on.
“We need to make changes to make this country even more beautiful …,” he said. “What we need is to eliminate the mascot issue. We’re not mascots.”