Okichitaw is a form of martial arts developed by George Lepine. Unlike most people who have made their own artistic, systemic, and teachable method of beating the shit out of someone, George is still alive and practicing the martial art he created. To give you an idea of Okichitaw's badassery, it isn't allowed in the MMA ring because it focuses on lethal weapons, and its hand-to-hand movements would be too brutal for competition. I went to one of George's beginner classes and, after some warm-up exercises that are still impeding my ability to walk, I was taught a few very effective ways of opening someone up with knives, tomahawks, and gunstocks. After the class, I can safely say that Okichitaw makes karate look like jazz tap.
Despite all the potential for carnage during his lessons, Lepine maintains a safe and welcoming atmosphere. More Mr. Miyagi than Ken Shamrock, he might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a badass martial arts master, but who would you rather have teaching you how to fight: the dick who kicked your ass in grade school or the affable sage who claps your back encouragingly after his 17-year-old son kicks your ass?
As I lay prostrate and sobbing, Master George sat next to me and talked about the creation that could inspire an Aboriginal renaissance.
VICE: Give me some general history of Okichitaw's origins.
George Lepine: It was crazy. I remember being out west and talking about it within my own community. People looked at me like I was nuts and said that these systems died a long time ago. But I remember going to a healing circle for someone who was going through some issues, and I was talking very much like a martial artist—describing what a person has to do to overcome those challenges. An elder spoke up and said “That’s what you should be teaching, George. If you were teaching that, we wouldn’t have these problems.” So it started there.
How long did the system take to develop?
I started in the late 80s. By the 90s I was doing research, particularly back in Manitoba, because I was adamant about keeping that in the system. I hold a sixth degree belt in Tae Kwon Do and a sixth degree belt in Hapkido, which are Korean-based martial arts. Most of the world agrees that when you hit the sixth degree in any martial arts, you can start incorporating your own system—and I was thinking about that well before it happened. The challenge came from structuring something that’s never been written down. Our traditions are oral, so it was up to me to write them down.
Were you afraid that your experience in other martial arts might influence Okichitaw’s development?
I have to be honest. When I got into the martial arts and understood the achievement structure and concept, only then was I able to structure Okichitaw. If I didn’t have that, I would only be teaching how to use the knife and maybe some tomahawk strikes. That was all I had.
Why have you chosen not to compete with Okichitaw? You’d certainly create a bigger profile for yourself.
Competition is restricting, it’s limiting. Okichitaw has no rules. It’s about finishing out your opponent and moving on to the next. I’ve spoken to some of the other masters of Muay Thai, and they regret marketing their art to the point where it has lost a lot of its traditional value. Once the Westerners got a hold of Muay Thai they changed the whole concept and philosophy, and I would hate to see Okichitaw go down that road. We definitely want to capture in on DVD, though. We have to do that. If my uncle or myself were hit by a bus tomorrow, the system would be lost. I have a 13 and 17-year-old, so it’s very important to me that Okichitaw is a part of their life. When they move on and have children, they can teach them as well.
Is it fair to say that Okichitaw focuses more on the practicality of its attacks versus their performance?
I guess the difference is if you were looking at some of the other traditional Asian marital arts, they would say “It has to be done this way.” And for some components that is correct, but an individual who may be substantially smaller than his teacher probably won’t be able to deliver that technique with the same amount of force. They might have to incorporate their body, or some forward movement, and Okichitaw allows that to happen.
So it accounts for the individual.
Absolutely, because no two warriors have ever been the same. Also, the warrior wasn’t just about fighting, the warrior was about the whole package and what he brought to the entire community to make them feel safe in his presence. So Okichitaw feeds into that.
All of the movements that I learned today seemed to revolve around actually holding a weapon or imagining that you were holding one.
The idea is that historically, we never had the opportunity to see all these other fighting systems throughout the world. We only knew what we knew. And what we knew at that time was how to use a knife effectively, how to use a club effectively, how to finish our opponent as quickly as possible. The straight punch, for example, you won’t see that in Okichitaw. You’ll see a wild swing of the fist coming down to the side of the neck or head. It’s no different than if we were holding a stick or a bat. If, heaven forbid, you lose your weapon, you move to your hand techniques.
What's going on with that grandfather staff on the stage?
This eagle staff was given to me by an elder and represents the martial arts system of Okichitaw that has been approved by the Aboriginal community. The feathers that are on there, they’ve been through ceremony. They’ve been through Sundance. My uncles have gone through it with them, so we want to honor that.
The fact that you have a medal from the Chungu World Martial Arts Tournament on the staff must mean it was a great honor for you to be there.
It was a great honor, but I remember how bloody tired I was during that demonstration. When you’re competing with other martial arts masters from around the world, you have to explain and justify yourself, which can be exhausting. But it was a great honor.
You’re a super humble dude, and clearly don’t want to be revered at all. Where do you think your place in this martial art is?
My advantage was having some experience in the martial arts, but also having a lot of great teachers. I was fortunate to grow up in a community in Manitoba full of great teachers. For me, it’s not about selling records.
So this isn’t the Native Tae Bo?
No! It’s about sharing our stories. When you practice any of the unique martial arts from all over the world, you are experiencing another culture. When you practice Okichitaw, you’re experiencing Plains Cree culture. A lot of other schools want a huge populace so they can make money, but that’s not what we’re about here. We’re about sharing a story. Probably 80 percent of our classes are aboriginal, but it's often the other 20 percent who take these stories outside of the community and share them with the outside world, and that’s really important to us, to make sure we’re not forgotten.