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The healing power of pursuing a dream

Billy Mills, winner of 1964 Olympic 10,000-meter race, speaks at ASU event.
November 15, 2018

Iconic Native American athlete visits ASU to speak about turning tradition and spirituality into motivational fire in life and sport

When Billy Mills beat the pack on a muddy cinder track in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, it was one of the greatest upsets in sports history. 

The grainy black-and-white video shows his graceful, effortless stride in the 10,000-meter race. But those steps were part of a difficult journey that left Mills, an Oglala Lakota, so despondent that he almost killed himself before he won the gold medal.

“That moment was magical to me. I felt as if I had wings on my feet,” Mills told a crowd at Arizona State University on Thursday night. He spoke at an event titled “Indigenous Identity and the Athletic Experience with Billy Mills,” sponsored by the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, the Global Sport Institute and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. The talk was held at the Tempe campus, which is on the homeland of the Akimel O’odham and Pee-Posh peoples.

Mills was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When he was 8, his mother died, and his father told him, “It takes a dream to heal broken souls. The pursuit of a dream will heal you.”

“He told me to take our culture, our traditions and spirituality and extract from them the virtues and values that empower them,” Mills said.

His father died when he was 12, but Mills found his passion in running and won an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas. 

“I was not ready for the lack of understanding that Americans had for me,” he said.

He was told he could not join a fraternity or be roommates with his white and black friends. And when he was named an NCAA All-American cross-country runner, he was told to not appear in the official photograph. 

“By then I knew something inside of me was broken, but I didn’t know what. I was locked out of the American dream.”

He opened the window of his fourth-floor hotel room and looked down, but heard his father’s voice telling him not to jump. 

Then he met Patricia, to whom he has been married for 56 years.

“Instantly, I’m in love,” he said. “Now I have a partner.”

Mills earned a degree, took a commission in the Marine Corps and made the U.S. Olympic team.

At the race in Tokyo, Mills knew he was running a scorching pace, but didn’t think he could keep it up. He felt his blood sugar plummeting, his vision blurring. Also, he was in fourth place. Then he stumbled. He briefly thought of quitting, until he saw Patricia in the crowd.

“She was crying because I was pursuing a dream and she was my support team. I was pursuing a dream to keep from thinking of suicide again,” he said.

“She knew I was taking the virtues and the values of my culture, my traditions, my spiritualty and I was putting them into my Olympic pursuit and my marriage.”

He surged to the finish and was briefly confused when he won.

“Did I miscount the laps? Do I have one more lap to go?”

When Mills returned to the United States, the country was in the midst of civil rights protests.

“The games inspired me to go on a journey into my past to understand footprints laid by my indigenous ancestors and my European ancestors, and what I found is what we face today in America,” he said.

He visited the black church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed by a bomb, and he studied the history of oppression against people of color, up to the “war on drugs” that fueled the growth of gangs on reservations.

He decried the backlash against former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans. Mills said that as a veteran, he supported the protest.

“He’s not disrespecting me. It’s a cry for unity,” he said.

The event also featured Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo and a social worker who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that sought to revoke trademark protection of the term "Washington Redskins,” a slur against Native Americans. She said she was thrust into the world of sports when she took on the mascot issue.

“I didn’t grow up saying, ‘Someday, I’m going to take the Washington NFL team to court,’” she said. 

“A lot of times in social justice and activism, the issues just happen. We don’t seek them. They come to us.”

Blackhorse said she has always admired athletes who take a stand on political issues.

“I was delighted to hear that Billy Mills spoke out against the name of the Washington team. I thought, ‘Yes, an icon is on our side.'"

In 1986, Mills founded the nonprofit group Running Strong for American Indian Youth, and he travels more than 300 days a year, speaking to young people about healthy lifestyles and taking pride in their heritage. Now 80 years old, he said the United States is in “strange times,” but he’s optimistic.

“I know we can come together and complete the maturity of our democracy,” he said.

Top photo: Retired ASU environmental graphic designer Randy Kemp (left) shares a laugh with Billy Mills, the Sioux Olympic gold medalist who won the 1964 Tokyo 10,000 meters. Kemp took part in a 500-mile ultramarathon in 1979, sponsored in part by Mills, and had him sign his finisher's certificate. Mills later addressed around 100 people at the "Indigenous Identity and the Athletic Experience" event on the Tempe campus on Thursday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Dispelling the myths of drag performance

November 15, 2018

ASU's Project Humanities event opens up the complex, fascinating world of drag kings and queens as part of series revealing truths

Forget everything you thought you knew about drag. 

“It’s not (about) gender. Drag is everything; whatever you can imagine,” said local Valley drag performer Miss X on Thursday night at an event hosted by ASU’s Project Humanities, an initiative created to bring people together to listen, talk and connect.

Dispelling the Myths: Drag Kings and Drag Queens,” half drag show, half question-and-answer session, took place at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix as part of the initiative’s 2018 season of events focused on revealing the truths behind the myths and stereotypes that surround such topics as deathPTSD and religion.

“We like going into spaces where people don’t often go, not for shock value but to think differently about topics that are less commonly talked about,” said Neal Lester, ASU English professor and director of Project Humanities.

While the success of shows like "RuPaul’s Drag Race" and a general lack of knowledge about the history and realities behind drag culture have led many to believe that it’s all about men in dresses, the performers at Thursday’s event begged to differ. 

“You can be a man and do drag, you can be a woman and do drag, you can be trans … you can be an alien,” said Austrid Aurelia, another of the night’s featured performers. “I consider club kids drag performers. I consider cosplayers to be on the spectrum of drag performers.”

Event facilitator and self-proclaimed “local hip historian” Marshall Shore gave the audience a brief history lesson before the show began.

Drag, it turns out, is nothing new. There’s evidence of male drag performance as far back as the ancient Greeks, extending from Japanese Kabuki theater to Shakespearian plays, where all the roles were played by men. Less attention has been paid, though, to women dressing as men, and more recently, transgender individuals dressing in personas that defy gender norms.

“Transgender people are like unicorns,” said Mia Inez Adams, who danced and lip-synched to Whitney Houston before the evening’s discussion. A transgender woman who has made a career of performing drag across the country for 37 years, Inez Adams bemoaned the lack of recognition of trans performers in the industry.

“We don’t fit in with gay men or gay women,” she said. “We are sometimes shunned from clubs.” 

Next Tuesday, Nov. 20, marks the international Transgender Day of Remembrance. Eddie Broadway, a transgender man and drag performer who works at a psychiatric hospital, noted that it’s a good time to think about the next generation of LGBT youth who are often victims of violence — either outward or self-inflicted. 

“I continue to do this for all the youth who are scared or who feel they’re not worthy,” he said. “I do it for them. And I think a lot of us do it for them.”

Melissa, who also goes by Dagoberto Bailon, agreed. An advocate of undocumented queer youth, she performs drag solely to fundraise for initiatives that work to give that underrepresented population voice and a sense of community.

“For me, it’s about opening up conversations about gender identity … (as well as things like) immigration and LGBT rights,” she said. 

Social media has also provided a space for the LGBT community and drag performers to connect and feel empowered.

Inez Adams recalled when she first began performing drag, not long after the Stonewall riots served as a catalyst to bring the gay rights movement to the forefront in America. Back then, she said, you could still get arrested for dressing in drag.

Nowadays, she said, through the magic of social media, “(members of the community) can see a collective of people around the country who do the same thing.”

Lester closed out the evening with a brief message about the significance of having open, honest conversations about so-called “taboo” subjects in our communities. 

“A lot of people will walk out of here tonight and say, ‘I’m really confused,’” he said. “And that’s OK, because that’s an opportunity to educate yourself, and talk to somebody and learn.”

Top photo: (From left) Melissa, Austrid Aurelia and Miss X answer questions about their experiences as drag kings and queens living and working in the Phoenix area during the ASU Project Humanities event "Dispelling Myths: Drag Kings and Drag Queens," at the Film Bar in downtown Phoenix. Historian Marshall Shore (right) was the event facilitator. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

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