A 12 year old Apache boy sitting in a grind house theatre in Southwest Phoenix finds a hero in Bruce Lee.
When Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon came out I went to see it. My older brother dragged me to watch it. It’s possible this one movie more than any other changed my life. Not one to ever say that but I had never really seen a hero on screen that looked like me. I’m Native American ( Apache) and Bruce Lee was Chinese but I easily identified with him. I often felt odds were against me with my dark brown skin at an all white school. When I was younger my small narrow eyes had people ask me if I was Chinese. It didn’t bother me. I was Apache and Native American and at an early age Natives learn to understand our place in history. We learn early there is “us” and “them “. We are still living under the affects of history on reservations today.
In all of Bruce Lee’s films we see constant struggle. His films are about maintaining dignity in a new world where little matters. He struggles to adapt, he struggles to fit in, he struggles to remain calm amidst humiliation and in the end he struggles to maintain peaceful and non-violent in a violent world. Like the reluctant gunfighter or a reformed gangster, he wants to hang up his weapons. Eventually he is pushed to defend himself. His battles against overwhelming odds in each fight scene fueled our imagination and fed our need for heroic justice in a fantastic way. Natives make up only 2% of the population so I cheered his every kick, scowl, lightning fast punch and bone breaking release from his oppressor. It seems I had a lot on my mind back then as I still do now. This was not wanton violence as critics would deem. This was a violent revolution against oppression in a one man against the world classic form.
When Bruce Lee is under attack he disperses his enemy with a traditional fighting style known as Kung Fu. In this tradition is carried centuries of philosophy, dedication, commitment to excellence and the Art of War. Native people come from centuries of tradition as well and we know the warrior ethos implicitly. Bruce Lee was a living warrior poet chieftain archetype come to life in Panavision. He turned a nation on to the power and beauty of the martial arts. For kids from the hood, barrio or Rez, he turned us on to pride in ourselves and our own forms of self-respect and preservation. As he stood up against brash arrogant name-calling racist would be champions, he stood up for us all.
My Apache Art and 70’s movie poster art premise might seem an odd mix to others but not to me. The American Apache ( and numerous other tribes) fought a long drawn out battle against the Unites States government as settlers encroached on traditional lands and territory. Our own history proves that our own Apache guerrilla fighting style was what kept us free. In the end however we had to succumb to a change in lifestyle, clash with Western white culture and eventually resume life on semi-calm reservations.
However, Native people never forgot what it was like to be free. The lands we now live on are testaments to once open territories we protected by long held tribal codes and sometimes sheer force of will. In Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss he battles racism against Chinese by Japanese foes. There is a price to pay in the end for the revenge fueled cinematic anti-heroism of Bruce Lee. In his films we learn that true underdogs don’t win every battle. They might even die trying.
A 12 year old Apache boy sitting in a grind house theatre in Southwest Phoenix finds a hero. Honest heroes teach us we are important where we are. A hero demonstrating that it’s not only okay to stand up for ourselves , but from time to time it is a “by any means necessary” necessity. If we didn’t stand up for ourselves in every area of our lives, we would be beat, beaten and tossed aside forgotten. He brought a Chinese hero to Hollywood when Hollywood didn’t want one nor knew they needed one. Bruce Lee with perfectly timed powerful delivery at the tail end of the Civil Rights era reminded us all to perfect ” the art of fighting without fighting”.
(The graphic poster was designed for a skate competition to be held in San Carlos AZ on November 9th sponsored by Apache Skateboards on the San Carlos Apache Nation)
Originally appeared at Apaches and Angels