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Okichitaw is a martial art based on the fighting techniques of the Assiniboine and Plains Cree Indians, intermingled with techniques derived from Judo, Taekwondo, Hapkido, and Taekeukdo. It was founded and first developed by Canadian martial artist, George J. Lépine.
Founder George J. Lépine learned Indian wrestling, tomahawk throwing and a variety of hand to hand techniques (miche che kiske) in his youth, and later trained in Judo, Taekwondo, Hapkido, and Taekeukdo. His instructors encouraged him to blend his family techniques with his formal training.
In the early 1990s Lépine began to organize and codify the techniques passed to him through his family, eventually producing the system as it is practiced today. The main Okichitaw training lodge, (mistiko kamik) runs out of the martial arts school of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and is disseminated through workshops and demonstrations.
The authenticity of Okichitaw origins as a traditional Canadian art is questioned in relation to George Lépine’s martial arts history: Okichitaw is heavily influenced by Judo, Taekwondo and Hapkido and there are limited reference sources for First Nations warrior societies’ historical conditions of training, weaponry, and fighting techniques. This has led some to conclude that it is not possible to duplicate what was never formally systematized within its historical context, and that any attempts to reconstruct Aboriginal weapons or hand techniques would be at best a romanticized version of fictional conditions.
The scarcity of original reference materials is cited as a general indictment of any attempt to reconstruct Indigenous systems, yet since the latter half of the 20th century, there has been an emerging acceptance of oral traditions as a source of historical record. Vern Harper has been part of Okichitaw from its early stages, advising and encouraging Lépine in its development. Vern officiates at Okichitaw ceremonies and promotions tests.
Lépine presented Okichitaw at the Chungju World Martial Arts Festival in 2002 where it was formally recognized as a unique indigenous martial art of Canada by the World Martial Arts Union. The Chungju Festival is the largest of its kind and is an annual forum and showcase for indigenous martial arts from around the world, with the country of origin fielding teams. For example, only Japanese teams may demonstrate Karate, and only the Canadian team may present indigenous arts such as Okichitaw. In 2004 and 2008, Lépine led Okichitaw demonstration teams representing Canada at the Festival.
Weapons are introduced early in a student’s training because of the influence of the weapons on the hand-to-hand techniques.
The primary weapon of Okichitaw is the distinctive Plains Cree gunstock war club, (nontoni towin mistik) a weapon developed throughout North America during the European occupation and colonization. It was originally created from modified, disused muskets, or, more simply, when ammunition was not available, the musket was reversed and used as a striking weapon. The Plains gunstock war club has a characteristic elbow in the stock in both the long (horseback) or short (ground) versions.
Tomahawk, short and long lance and knife are also part of basic Okichitaw training. Hand-to-hand techniques most often assume the use of tomahawk and knife, but do not necessarily rely upon the use of the weapons. In Okichitaw the hand positions are held as if there are weapons – in the same way that Aikido’s kamae position assumes the use of a sword – but, as in Aikido, the techniques do not suppose use of weapons. Most Okichitaw techniques have both weapon and open-handed variations but the focus is primarily through the application of hard forearm impact techniques.
As in many martial arts, training is practiced one on one, with an attacker initiating the technique by offering a physical threat using basic weapons – tomahawk and knife attacks, or a punch. The student demonstrating the technique responds to the attack, usually by immediately moving into the attacker’s space with a combination of blocks, strikes, holds, rolls or throws to complete the technique.