'When we're training, we're free': Instructor fights to save Indigenous martial art

George Lepine is trying to make sure a part of Canada's Indigenous culture survives. He teaches something that looks a lot like tae kwon do or karate, but is actually a Cree martial art called Okichitaw.

It's 'intimidating' to be one of the last people qualified to teach Okichitaw, George Lepine says

George Lepine has taught the Indigenous martial art of Okichitaw for decades and wants to ensure the practice is passed down. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

George Lepine looks on as his students learn how to flip an attacker coming at them with a weapon.

The class looks similar to karate or tae kwon do, right down to the black martial arts outfits the students wear, but the self-defence practice Lepine is teaching them is from North America, not Asia.

It's called Okichitaw, an Indigenous martial art passed down the generations by the Cree.

Lepine, 56, is trying to ensure it survives.

"It has to go on in the future," says Lepine, who learned the techniques from his uncles when he was growing up as a Plains Cree in Southern Manitoba.

"It's intimidating for me knowing that I'm one of the last ones able to hold this information, but I need to share it with others to make sure that we move forward with it."

A little wrestling between brothers. Lloyd Skanks (bottom) and Walter Skanks (top) work on their techniques. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Some of the students say it's helped them overcome struggles and re-connect with their roots.

"It helped me with my healing in a very big way," says Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone.

When we're training, it's like everything in the world that tries to bring you down stops ... When we're training, we're free.- Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone

She says she's dealt with tough issues, including depression and substance abuse and was also physically assaulted. 

"Now I'm sober and have been for two years since starting Okichitaw." 

Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone and Johnathan Whittaker both credit Okichitaw for making them stronger and more connected to their Indigenous roots. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

"When we're training, it's like everything in the world that tries to bring you down stops. For those minutes, hours when we're training, we're free."

Her partner, Johnathan Whittaker, invited her to try the martial art on one of their first dates, and he says it's helped him, too.

"This system is really good for those wounded warriors," he explains, including people dealing with substance abuse or those who are ashamed of their ancestry.

Whittaker says he was one of those people but that Okichitaw "helped strengthen me and reinstate that belief that [I] come from a proud culture."

George Lepine shows Amy Desjarlais how to block a tomahawk. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Okichitaw was passed along by oral traditions before, but Lepine says he worked for years with the elders to write down the rules and develop the practice so it could be formally recognized — first by the World Martial Arts Union, then by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2002. 

He currently teaches it three times a week at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto on Spadina Avenue just north of Bloor Street, in addition to travelling across the country to give courses. 

According to the Okichitaw website, Indigenous weaponry such as the tomahawk, lance, warclub and knife are used in advanced training.

Miles York with a training tomahawk. Students as young as eight learn the Indigenous martial art, though most start at around the age of 12. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Lepine has also turned to technology to be able to share the martial art more widely, offering videos that he says cut down the distance to more isolated communities.

He says most of his students have at least some Indigenous heritage, though non-Indigenous people have also taken his classes.

Studying the martial art, Lepine says, involves more than just learning to fight, with some sessions done outdoors to teach students about the importance of the land.

"If you're coming in just to learn to strike ... I'm sorry, you're not going to be terribly happy."

Amy Desjarlais prepares to block a flying kick from Andrew Amaral. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

He isn't the only one searching for ways to ensure the practice of Okichitaw continues, with some of his students also focusing on sharing what they've learned.

Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone says she was unsure at first about taking it on, as someone who isn't 100 per cent Indigenous (she's Anishinaabe mixed with French and Scottish roots).

"I've struggled with feeling like I have the right to pass this knowledge on," she explains, though her mother encouraged her.

Whittaker, who is a consultant in his day job, also wants a role in bringing the martial art to others.

"I see us opening up a studio," he says.

"Basically, I see expansion."

With files from Richard Agecoutay