In 1992, 28 years after becoming the first American to win a gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics, American Indian activist Billy Mills sat in a Barcelona restaurant with his family and overheard American reporters wondering aloud, "What ever happened to that Indian guy?"
One reporter's response Â that Mills must have turned into an alcoholic, "just like the rest of those Indians" Â rendered Mills speechless.
"I couldn't speak," he told an audience of about 100 people Tuesday night at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union. "I was tired of perceptions. I was tired of America saying we have a mascot to honor you."
With coaxing from his daughter, and inspiration from a memory of his father telling him he'd have to overcome feelings of anger and resentment if he wanted to succeed in life, Mills mustered the strength to confront the reporter.
"I've never seen a man's jaw quiver, jerk, disengage and hit the concrete," Mills said.
Mills, who attended Haskell Institute before graduating from Kansas University in 1962, shared several similar stories of his encounters with racism in the years before, during and after his Olympic accomplishment etched his name in an elite recordbook. That type of discrimination, he said, is the American Indian's most formidable obstacle to realizing tribal sovereignty.
Mills' appearance was sponsored by KU's Center for Indigenous Studies, First Nations Student Assn., American Studies Department and the American Studies Association of Graduate Students.
The U.S. government has failed to properly recognize treaties it signed with indigenous peoples more than 100 years ago, Mills said. Those treaties were signed with conditions: that fighting would cease but that the government would take no more native lands and would not infringe on the American Indian nations' rights to self-govern, Mills said.
Yet today, he said, 5 to 20 percent of the cases before the U.S. Supreme Court deal with the erosion of tribal sovereignty.
"We need young leadership that is responsible, accountable and willing to implement intelligent, adaptive programs of change," Mills said.
One important step, he said, would be to appoint an American Indian to the Supreme Court. Another would be to increase American Indian representation in federal government. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs doesn't adequately represent indigenous nations that live on reservations that comprise a land mass 3.5 times the size of the original 13 states, Mills said.
"It's partial taxation without representation," he said. "It's quasi-apartheid. We were the forerunners of denouncing apartheid in South Africa. We're blind to it here."
Though Mills was able to pursue his Olympic dream at a young age, he said, "I'm 63 1/2 years old, and I still seldom feel like I belong, and it's because of America's lack of understanding of Native American sovereignty."
But unlike the days when his Lakota ancestors were forced to whisper because speaking their native tongue was illegal, Mills said American Indians today no longer have to be silent when it comes to issues of tribal sovereignty.
"In America, you don't get what is right or wrong," he said. "You get what you negotiate for."