Flutes, kicks, spins and flips are common features of Bayfield’s newest gym, Nexus Guardian Art.
To the regular bystander, Nexus lessons seem like a mixture of parkour, mixed martial arts and self-defense. But students are learning a Native American ancestral fighting art rooted in the original game of lacrosse – guardian art. And the Pine River Valley plays a leading role in Nexus’ plans to bring guardian art to the Four Corners.
“I guess in modern English words ... it’s kind of like real life ninja training for kids and adults,” said Great Owl Lightning, co-founder of Nexus Guardian Art and a member of the Ojibwe Nation.
Guardian art fighters have competed successfully against other disciplines, like Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But Lightning was careful to distinguish between them: The guardian art philosophy does not focus on martial concepts, such as strike first, strike hard, no mercy, that can be found in other disciplines, he said.
“A guardian is not trying to go to war with life. A guardian is trying to nurture life,” Lightning said. “It’s all about being a guardian for yourself, for your community, for your family. Part of our teaching is how to be a guardian to the Earth.”
Nexus offers virtual and in-person training to kids, starting at age 3, and up to the adult level. A typical class features self-defense moves, climbing, acrobatics, striking, grappling and spirit running, which is comparable to modern-day parkour.
“The cool thing about it is it’s really a diverse skill set that they’re teaching,” said Andrew Trujillo, whose three children train at Nexus. “That’s why I like it. The kids aren’t doing the same thing every time. It’s evolving as they learn, as they grow.”
His kids are building their self-confidence, friendships, agility – and spending more time at home jumping around on the furniture, Trujillo said.
The program is open to everyone. It’s a way for people to share in Native American culture and North American ancestry, Lightning said.
“If you’re going to practice like a Japanese art, you almost have to become Japanese in order to learn it,” he said. “We want people to honor their own ancestry. And that’s a big part of our teachings.”
The guardian art movement and philosophy is based on Native American lacrosse, played across North and South America and even in coastal Asia from time immemorial, Lightning said.
The game did not look anything like the lacrosse known today. Instead of a field, they played on a mountain. Teams would score points by hitting a ball on a totem pole at the top of the mountain.
It was also a full-contact game. Players needed to be skilled in stick fighting, tackling, wrestling, spirit running, kicking and punching in order to reach the totem pole.
“This is how communities used to settle disputes with each other. That’s why you won’t find a lot of communities having big battles and war in North America,” Lightning said. “They would call it ‘little brother of war.’”
Nexus Guardian Art began teaching 20 years ago, primarily in Canada or its headquarters in California.
During the past eight years, the training school held programs with the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Starting in 2018, they held programs, featuring language immersion, with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Nexus considered opening a location in Ignacio, but progress froze when the COVID-19 pandemic began. It opened up with Bayfield Gymnastics and moved into its new location in January. Nexus opened doors to the public at the end of February, Lightning said.
Nexus also purchased a property near Forest Lakes to host summer camps in the Four Corners, part of the organization’s nonprofit arm, called Guardian Saga.
Guardian Saga holds camps and training programs that attract Indigenous, rural and underprivileged youths from across North America.
“It’s about really investing out here. We think this place is just beautiful and magical,” Lightning said.