By Andrew McGregor
Last night, amidst a mobilization of supporters — including hundreds of veterans — and against a looming deadline upon which the land they occupied would be “closed for winter,” the protestors at Standing Rock received good news. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an important easement to Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, effectively halting construction and calling for a rerouting of the 1,170-mile pipeline. Approval of the easement would have allowed construction workers to drill beneath the Missouri River and other nearby lakes, creating the potential for the devastation of local sources of fresh drinking water if an oil spill were to occur. Indeed, the ongoing standoff between protestors and the oil company and construction workers responsible for building the pipeline had lasted months, and centered on the concerns of preserving fresh drinking water and respecting sacred cultural heritage sites. The proposed pipeline’s location fell only a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and crossed much of their ancestral land holdings, granted to them under an 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty but now no longer held by the Standing Rock people.
Among the veterans flocking to the camp prior to the good news, were Henry Boucha and Billy Mills, two prominent Native American Olympic heroes. Boucha won a silver medal as a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team, while Mills won gold for his performance in the 10,000m at the 1964 Olympics. Both also served in the military. Mills was a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and Boucha in the U.S. Army when competing in the Olympics. Native Americans have traditionally served in the military in high numbers, and as I have argued in other places, this service has helped mediate their sporting experience, extending what I have called the “sporting middle ground” and permitting them to achieve notoriety and acceptance in broader American culture. Veteran status along with heroic sporting accomplishments have helped elevate Boucha and Mills’ standing and lent them increased respect when speaking about various issues — both within the Native American community and to larger white America.
Capitalizing on this position, Boucha and Mills traveled to Standing Rock on Sunday afternoon. They participated in the celebrations last night, and are scheduled to stand in solidarity and give statements this afternoon. Today’s event, however, is not the first time they have spoken out against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In August, Mills traveled to the camp at Standing Rock to offer his support.
In this video, Mills outlines why he supports the protestors and how he connects the struggle to the long history of Native American issues. It also represents an empowerment of native peoples, banding together using their knowledge and intellect to combat the pipeline. He explains how the protest represents an important pushback against white privilege and is assertion of Native American survivance. Calling out white America for its privilege and injustices is difficult. But, Mills, who is a veteran activist and student of history, is careful to present himself as half-white and a military veteran to temper his statement, understanding the increased-respect it provides him, which enables him to make these claims.
The intricacies of these statements and the ability to operate as a successful activist is a testament to Mills’ career. For nearly forty-years he has stood as a central figure advocating for Indian causes and supporting Native American youth. His example is instructive for today’s athlete-activists. Throughout his career he has navigated the difficulties of race and expectation, and mediated the uncomfortable position between branding and activism that many athletes face today.
Mills became active during the time of Red Power and the American Indian Movement (AIM). AIM’s takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington D.C. and occupation of Wounded Knee caused a controversy among Native Americans and divided them from each other. The armed resistance at Wounded Knee and Alcatraz made the organization seem extreme, which did little to help improve relations with white America or the federal government. Although not necessarily supportive of the violent aesthetic of AIM and its actions, Mills saw it as a venue to make a difference and sought to join. Dennis Banks, one of AIM’s founders, was aware of the controversy incited by AIM and indirectly protected Mills. Occasionally Mills attended AIM meetings, but at certain times, Banks would say “Billy why don’t you go ahead and leave. This is not for you. You’ve got a different purpose.”
Banks helped Mills find his role and understand the important position he held because of his athletic career. He encouraged Mills not to sacrifice his status in the name of militancy and instead use it to address the problem from a different angle. Sports gave Mills a certain power that ensured people would listen, and if he cultivated that image correctly, that power could sustain his activism (and his brand) for the rest of his life. Furthermore, Mills’ time in the Marines provided him important public relations training, giving him skills and connections to work in less extreme ways.
Over the last thirty-years, Billy Mills has been the spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth and traveled almost constantly raising money and giving speeches to empower and provide resources for Native American causes. The charity has raised over $650 million dollars. At the heart of his pitch though, is an uplifting message about understanding your individual value. Pieces of this message are apparent in the video above, demonstrating how it has contributed to the mobilization of activists by empowering, inspiring, and nurturing Native American communities. In many ways, Mills has helped them find their voice and reassured them that they matter.
Boucha’s activism has taken a similar tact, although in less obvious and public ways. Like Mills he has protested the use of racial slurs as team names and mascots. He also joined Mills in the project to inspire indigenous youth by telling Native American stories. Boucha has begun the task of producing a series of documentary films about Native American sporting stars. He was motivated to do the film-series as a way to help teach indigenous culture and inspire young people to embrace their heritage. “Most of our stories are similar, because of the determination and not wanting to be an Indian,” he explained to MinnPost.com, “When I was growing up, I didn’t want to learn my culture because as an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old, watching a John Wayne movie, the drunk Indian would always be the villain and I would just sink in my seat. So when my mother wanted to teach me the language and to wear any regalia that had been part of the tradition, I was embarrassed, so I never wore my culture.” He hopes the films help buck this trend, and serve as a form of education. Teamed with Mills, Boucha sees the potential empowerment that may result; an empowerment that could help inspire a rebirth of Pan-Indianism like that seen at Standing Rock.
Students of Native American history know that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision is far from a final resolution. With forty-five days until a new president takes office, the changing political climate will likely affect the future of the pipeline. The fight to secure the drinking water at Standing Rock and preserve their ancestral lands must continue. Boucha and Mills are committed to the cause. Their history and approach to activism highlight this commitment. They have demonstrated a sustained non-Political approach to activism through empowerment and education that promotes engagement with a variety of issues. They have also shown an adept skill at balancing their heroic status and “brand” as Olympic athletes with their outspokenness in ways that do not undermine their authority or risk their position. These are important lessons for activist athletes, important histories for us to share and analyze, and important developments to follow. We must join Boucha and Mills in continuing this project of empowerment and education, and in resisting the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His master’s thesis explored the lives and representations of iconic Native American athletes, Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.