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

Gyasi Ross

"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."

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.  

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




Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on

Well said Gyasi! How true it is with our intentions while we are young. So many things we want to do, places we want to go & see, what we hope to become as grown men.

When one becomes older & sees about what we didn't accomplish or dreams we wanted to happen; but didn't. It's called procrastination. Procrastination is a human condition that is world-wide I have found through many years of being around here & there.

What can we do to curb this inclination more so? It's called focusing & commitment. It sounds simple, but as human beings so many things distract us & draw our attention to one thing after another while we are young, curious & adventure-seeking in our youth & growing into adults.

There is so much non-commitment in our communities in all the single family homes headed many times by our women. I find this sad that so many of our children have no father figure involved in their young & developing lives. There is a longing by a certain time in a boy's life that he wants & needs a male role model to teach him about all the things he needs to know about becoming a man.

Our young girls also need a male role model in their lives as well. A man who shows her, through daily living what a good man is all about. A man who is always there to confide in, answer questions that only a man can answer & be there for her as she comes into young adulthood so she knows what to look for when she looks for a good young man to come into her life as a stable force. A person who will never hurt her or the children that comes along at a later time. A man who doesn't drink, use drugs, party or behave in a shameful way.

There are so many heartaches in our native communities that have come about all because so many men don't know what being committed to their women folk, the children they produce is all about. It has happened because they haven't had that all important person involved in their growing as well.

Can it all be changed? You bet it can! Men out here, when you become involved with our women, be men of integrity, honor & respectable human beings that bring pride of a good way to our Creator, tribes, clans & families.

Elders & fathers who ARE being good role models, I commend each of you for being that daily example to your children & the youngsters in your lives.

The rest of you who aren't, I say this to you, you too, CAN become that man that is looked up to with respect, honor & who DOES bring pride of a good way to your family & people out here. Make that change my friends TODAY! If you want help to turn your life around, just reach out & I can guarantee you there is someone willing to take you under their wing & teach you through their daily example of what it means to be a good man of honor, integrity & living your life in a way that causes the Great Spirit to smile upon your life once more as that example of commitment to your own children & the woman in your life for a lifetime.

Boys & girls BOTH need fathers in their lives who are committed for a lifetime to show them through daily examples of what it means to be a person of honor, integrity & living in a good way my friends.

YOU can make a difference starting TODAY! Ask for help if you need it & don't be prideful or scared to admit you don't know all that you need to know to be a good man, a good husband, father, uncle & a mentor in your native community!

Make the change that has the potential to turn our native communities around in a good way as our peoples once were in the times of the ancestors! Each one CAN reach one if we just take that first step & leap of faith.

The ways of the ancestors are not old-fashioned. They have been the methods that are tried & true that have been honed over untold centuries. Our ancestors were committed men & women who were determined to keep our communities together, happy, healthy & devoted to one another as the Creator set forth for each of us.

Are you willing to be that man or woman in our communities that can be part of turning our youth & people around?

May the Great Spirit bless & keep each of you my friends in His care.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on

Thank you for yet another thoughtful article, Gyasi!

My own father was abusive and I think I would rather have spent time WITHOUT a father figure. Still, I can appreciate how lonely a young man must feel without input from a male role model. I DID learn to shoot, and hunt and survive in the wilderness, but the physical, emotional and psychological abuse was my payment.

I currently sponsor a surrealist art group in the high school where I work (I'm a library assistant) and our club is growing because word has gotten around that we accept ANYONE who wants to learn and that I'm a kind, thoughful adult.

I found my positive mentors in books. Reading is one of the few things I could do in spite of our poverty (libraries are free) and I immersed myself in positive role models from all cultures.

Thank you, Gyasi again for being so thoughtful and thank you especially for showing everyone how important it is to help guide the younger generations WITHOUT being a didactic jerk about it.