Photo credit: Wendy Boure; Levi Blackwolf

Bruce Lee and John Mohawk Teach Native Graduates Educational Jiu Jitsu

Gyasi Ross

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.” —Bruce Lee


It’s in our blood, family. It’s in our very DNA.

I’ve had the good fortune to speak at approximately fifteen graduations this year. It’s been amazing to see the diversity of many, many Natives who are excelling within this educational system. As many graduates as I got to speak to, I didn’t get to speak to all. I respectfully ask you to pass this on to any graduate you know because this is what I would say if I got the chance to speak to every Native graduate:

As John Mohawk brilliantly articulated, “Culture is a learned means of survival in an environment.” As such, cultures necessarily must change because environments change and thus the devices required to survive within those environments change. 

An ironic syllogism with the power to create Nations.

Ironic because the US education system—intended to kill the Indian spirit and thereby dissolve Native nations into the mainstream (assimilation, a purpose to which it is still largely dedicated)—have become the tools to ensure survival for Native people individually and Native nations collectively. Now, through education, Tribes have the ability to develop individual Native talents to build the community infrastructure/resources/networks to grow Native nations stronger and more resilient.

Necessary assimilation.

Brilliant. Educational jiu jitsu, martial arts—redirecting the United States’ assimilative energy to strengthen Native communities. Fulfilling John Mohawk’s prophecy—keeping culture alive through education. You guys can do that. 

Native grads, please recognize that you all come from noble histories of FORMAL education. That’s right—“formal.” Many people would lie to you and say that Native people have not had much success in educational systems. Those are filthy lies and are intended to make you think less of and devalue the powerful educational structures of your ancestors and also to second-guess your ability to compete in these western institutions. You can compete. In fact, you SHOULD succeed and excel. Education is in your genes—follow me for a second:

1)     Native people, for tens of thousands of years, developed individual talents for the benefit of the community.

2)     The way that many of those communities developed that talent was via “societies” or guilds that were constructed to develop expertise in a particular discipline (seamstressing, hunting, war/fighting, fishing, medicine/healing etc). These societies were formalized and structured (and oftentimes involuntary), not just a bunch of Indians running around naked in the woods.

3)     Those societies taught the individuals the VERY BEST PRACTICES of how to be successful within that discipline.

4)     The Natives who were educated within that discipline were expected, in exchange for that education and support of the community, to contribute to the community utilizing the tools learned during that education.

5)     For example, when a young person grew up in a hunting society and developed an expertise in hunting, they didn’t learn to hunt simply to feed themselves. No, they were expected to provide also for their family and for the community at large.

6)     Those societies were interdependent—e.g. the hunters' hunting skills were useless without having the proper shoes fabricated from the seamstressing societies. And all societies needed the medicine societies for when the inevitable injuries came.

I reiterate: Native students, FORMAL education is hardwired in your DNA through tens of thousands of years of survival.


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Mojo Hand's picture
Mojo Hand
Submitted by Mojo Hand on
Nice column! And Bruce Lee is awesome, he's my avatar photo (a rare pic of him in ancient Chinese costume). He also said: "To change with change is the changeless state." Be like water, indeed, my friends.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Gyasi - I am ALWAYS impressed with your thoughts and your writing. I have always been a big advocate for education, but especially so after getting my current job as a high school library assistant. I see so many young people struggling with education and I've noticed the ones who typically succeed have their entire family behind them. ___________________________________________________________ You're absolutely right about Native education and if Natives DIDN'T coin the meme, "it takes a village," they certainly live by it. Ironically, the current political atmosphere would scream, "SOCIALIST," but they've forgotten that Natives had to be TAUGHT to hoard money, land, and material wealth. ____________________________________________________________ I'll always be human enough to rejoice in the scholastic or athletic accomplishments of ANY student, but I'm especially proud when a Native or Hispanic student succeeds. Not to engage in "poverty porn," but many of these students can't afford computers or printers or ANY of the technology that modern school work requires. They are the reason I show up to work a half hour early. Obtaining an education is always an uphill climb, but some people are doing it in Cadillacs, some people on horseback and some people are walking. The idea is to keep moving forward. ___________________________________________________________ I also love your use of the Bruce Lee quote, Gyasi. Not many people knew that Bruce Lee had a degree in Philosophy from Washington State. I'm guessing (partially from the photo above - you're trademark smile is absent and you have a serious "martial intensity" in your eyes) that you are a martial artist? I am an Apat Guro in Filipino Eskrima/Kali (so was Bruce Lee's closest friend, Dan Inosanto) and I've found the stick and knife techniques and the Filipino martial philosophy very closely related to Native thought. As always, it's a pleasure to read your thoughts, Gyasi.

azpark's picture
Submitted by azpark on
Gyasi Ross A very uplifting article and I hope it has some impact. However I think you should have followed your hunter gatherer metaphor with some present day heroes that have followed the modern path. Too often it seems that the poverty and despair we see so often is the result of some who yearn for the old days back.