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An Apology to Young Men of Color: Mentorship Matters, Part I

Gyasi Ross writes about the need for Native men to serve as mentors to the younger generation
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"Cultures are learned means of survival in an environment. Our cultures…transmit those learned means of survival from generation to generation."

—John Mohawk

"…we instructed people to walk straight while blindfolded, thus removing the effects of vision. Most of the participants in the study walked in circles, sometimes in extremely small ones…Small random errors in the various sensory signals that provide information about walking direction add up over time, making what a person perceives to be straight ahead drift away from the true straight ahead direction…"

—Dr. Jan Souman

Weird statement: I’ve known that I wanted to have kids since I was 13 years old. I remember when my little brother, Sutah Gyiyo was born, and I laid in bed with him talking to him. “I’m going to teach you all the things that nobody taught me.” It wasn’t a sad statement—I just knew that there was a lot that I didn’t know, but I had no clue what it was. Like many young boys of color who grew up with a single mom, no one ever had the “birds and bees” talk with me, taught me about getting a job, how to change the oil in my car or how I was supposed to behave on a date.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Just like many young men don’t know what they don’t know. How could we?

Therefore, one of my goals became teaching/mentoring—not just my little brother, but also the slew of nephews—the things that I never learned. More broadly, I became involved with working with Native youth to try to extend these mentorship principles. And I was doing that, but then got away from that—got more focused on career, and family, and self. "I’ll get back to it soon. Soon. Soon."

And before I knew it, I was damn near 40 (ok, mid-30s, but still, I’m saying tho…)!!!

Like many men my age, I simply don’t "get" the younger generation—the so-called "millennials." Alright, you guys play a lot of video games, get on-line and text a whole bunch, and don’t have a whole lot of hope that things will get better.

I found myself watching my little brother (the same baby who made me want kids when I was 13), who is now 24, and thinking C’mon man…you have more opportunities than we ever had. Do something great.

It took some time to realize that I have a role in this: MY generation of Native men is doing exactly what the previous generation of Native men did for us. They didn’t understand the 90’s model, coming-of-age Native guys, who dressed and talked like rappers. They didn’t "get it."

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So they left us alone. And so we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And now we’re leaving this generation alone to figure things out for themselves.

That’s curious and unfortunate because our small communities never just left young folks alone; they couldn’t afford to. No, our communities had a vested interest in ensuring that every single person could be a contributing member to the larger group. There was no space or food for those who couldn’t pull their own weight. We had societies that taught specific skills and made sure that "I don’t know what I don’t know" wasn’t a valid excuse. The survival of the community depended upon it. But for some reason, we don’t think like that now—in fact, none of the large Native organizations, with all of their successful, educated and fancy members are dedicated to meaningfully mentoring Native young people. That is in direct conflict with Native people’s historical approach to survival, an approach that worked wonderfully.

How do we know that it worked?

Because we’re still here. For 50 thousand years, the survival of Native people on this continent speaks to the effectiveness of our mentorship systems. If it didn’t work, Native people and our lifeways, languages, clan systems and religious practices would have gone the way of the dodo. Now, there are serious threats to those ways: Our languages are dying off, suicide is rampant (whether instant, or slow by alcohol, drugs and obesity), and under-supervised kids are all over within our communities (only African Americans had more single parent households in 2010). 

In a 2011 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, "Fathers and Youth's Delinquent Behavior," Deborah A. Cobb-Clark and Erdal Tekin stated it plainly: "Adolescent boys engage in more delinquent behavior if there is no father figure in their lives."

But note: the study does not say “if there is no father in their lives.” Father figures do not have to be biological. What that means is that we cannot simply point our fingers at biological dads and say, “deadbeat dads, you are bad people.” That may be true, but it’s not quite that simple. We also have some responsibility here. Unfortunately, most of the “successful” Native men don’t really make time to make sure that there’s a younger generation of Native men who are at least as successful as they are. 

But we have an obligation to, even if we’re not doing it.

I apologize for losing track of this important priority; I promise to be a better mentor.

We can make a difference in the lives of young men even if we’re not their biological fathers. In fact, just as our ancestors had a responsibility to groom and help mentor young men coming up under us, so we do too.

The mocs I rock

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation Enrolled/Suquamish Nation Immersed
New Book, "How to Say I Love You in Indian" coming December!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi