Native Sports Legends Talk About Native Role Models

Rodney Harwood

Lakota elder Billy Mills paused for a moment, reflective, almost as if he was asking a silent prayer for the Creator to guide his words.

“Never in the history of the tribal nations has there been a greater need for us to get together and determine what type of life, what type of world we want to create for our children,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The prophecies of the Seventh Generation are not a guarantee. The prophecies of the Seventh Generation are a choice. That’s why we need to get together collectively and determine what choices we want to make to choreograph our future. If we choreograph it right, then the prophecies will be fulfilled.”

And the Seventh Generation is moving forward through the actions of the Schimmel sisters from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and the Thompson brothers from the Onondaga Nation, to name a few.

ICTMN asked American Indian Athletic Hall of Famers Billy Mills (Lakota), Sonny Sixkiller (Cherokee), Jim Warne (Lakota), along with Notah Begay III, the first Native to play on the PGA Tour, and Haskell Indian Nations University record-holder Wade McGee (Cherokee) to weigh in on the topic:

Native young people are emerging as role models in Indian Country. But do Indian people need Indian role models?

“I remember reading about Billy Mills winning the Olympic 10,000 meters and thinking, ‘Wow, he’s Indian’. I was proud, but it didn’t inspire me to go out and run a 10,000-meter race,” Sixkiller said with a laugh. Sixkiller (1970-72) racked up 385 completions, 5,496 yards and 35 touchdowns and set 15 school records in three years at Washington University.

Sonny Sixkiller (

But McGee, who holds seven rushing records at Haskell, including an eye-popping 9.8 yards per carry average his sophomore season, said that other demographics are not like Indian Country.

“I think Indian kids do need Indian role models. We’re not like anybody else in the United States,” McGee told ICTMN. “We have an identity. We have a culture. Even our language is different. We’re unique in that our people come from this land, so we can be here today and that’s how we teach our kids.”

Mills agreed. “I definitely believe Indian kids need Indian role models,” said Mills, who was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 1978. “A young person growing up in an urban setting, who is very in tune with his culture, looks to role models for reassurance. There are children on the reservations that are well aware of how difficult it is to leave to go to school. I have gone to 108 different countries at this stage in my life, and yet the greatest culture shock I ever experienced was leaving [Pine Ridge] reservation for the first time to go to Haskell.”

Jim Warne

Warne played on the Arizona State football team that won the Rose Bowl in 1987. His story, called “Urban Indian,” was featured in Sports Illustrated.  

“I grew up in the city, but my mother, who was raised on Pine Ridge, always told me ‘You better act Lakota,’” said Warne, who was inducted into the American Indian Hall of Fame in 2004. “I think it’s good for Indian kids to have Indian role models, because they have that identification. Billy Mills is someone I could identify with because he’s from Pine Ridge. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if he can do it, maybe I can too.’ I got countless letters from people after the Rose Bowl saying they had watched me play and how important it was for them to see someone from Indian Country in such a big game. I had no idea how important it was to them. So I think it helps to have some folks from your own culture out they’re doing things that we can look up to.”

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Begay, 42, became the first Native to join the PGA Tour in 1995, and opened the door for other Native American golfers.

“Under ideal circumstances, it would be good for role models for our Indian kids to be Indian,” Begay said. “We’re used to the stories of, ‘that person had a lot of talent, but they flunked out’ or ‘that person had a lot of talent, but they just didn’t make it.’ I think the [Schimmel sisters and the Thompson brothers] can play an instrumental role in changing the mindset of our younger kids. They’re succeeding in the highest levels of competition.”

With drug addiction, teen suicide and the high school dropout rate going through the roof, some Native communities see college as the finish line. And Sixkiller, 62, tells young people that education is the answer.


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naparyaq's picture
Submitted by naparyaq on
Good article. Professional sports is a profession, like any other, with a training path. To be "professional" means one has gone the distance, put in long hard hours towards a goal, and demonstrated excellence. But different than a college degree or job training program, a professional athlete doesn't just complete a program, acquire a skill set and a credential. Professional athletes have to compete and "win." They have to be demonstrably _better_ than the rest of the playing field. And then continue the same effort of time and training to maintain the skills and get even better. They have to keep winning to stay in the game; performing at a higher level than their peers. This is commitment and perseverance. Native women especially need role models. Wherever they can be found. There are fewer sports training programs than ever for girls - particularly indigenous girls - even with Title 9 mandates. Girls need to be encouraged to be 'sporty'; to participate and play; to value athleticism and physical strength; and to not quit, to persevere through defeat. Girls need to be dressed in clothing and shoes they can run and play in, and parents need to put them in sports programs, the same as their brothers. Girls need to be taught that pregnancy is a choice and a decision. And Native girls need to learn pride in their accomplishments and to be comfortable in their own skins. In many North American indigenous cultures, modesty and humbleness is an important cultural value. Self-promotion and pride is viewed as arrogant and undesirable. So let them keep that important indigenous cultural training. It falls on us - the community and the elders - to make them heroes and role models. To prop them up, to acknowledge and promote them. Even if it doesn't fit American corporate marketing strategies for sports drinks and tennis shoes. In 8th grade, Yup'ik Eskimo professional athlete Callan Chythlook-Sifsof made a calendar of Native American sports heroes for a school project. She couldn't find 12. Along with Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe, she included Hawaiʻian surf legend Aunty Rell, Australia's Cathy Freeman and Canadian female athletes. I love it that Billy Mills is wearing a WEIO t-shirt in the photo. World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is an iconic Alaska sporting event. Even kids in the most remote isolated villages participate. Schools incorporate WEIO traditional Native games in their sports programs, sending teams from across Alaska to compete in the annual Native Youth Olympics, a feeder to WEIO. Females are well-represented and known to be some of the fiercest competitors.