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Toronto martial arts group visits North Korea

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Joan Taillon, Birchbark Writer, Toronto







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It is the trip of a lifetime.

For at least one man, it will be the second trip of a lifetime when the Oki Chi Taw Indigenous Martial Arts demonstration team heads to South Korea at the end of the month.

Team manager George Lepine is as pumped at the prospect of his seven teammates showing off their distinctly Aboriginal combat techniques before the world as he was last year when he travelled solo to earn a gold medal in the category of Martial Art of Uniqueness at the Chungju World Martial Arts Festival.

This year's festival, the seventh, takes place Oct. 1 to 7. More than 1,000 martial arts practitioners from 36 countries will be in the city of Chungju in North Chungchong Province to showcase their athletic prowess and the specialties of their respective countries.

The Canadians, who leave for this hub of world-class martial arts on Sept. 28, are looking forward to an all-expenses-paid trip made possible by Korea's Foreign Affairs and Trade ministry, their Culture and Tourism ministry, and the Korea National Tourism Organization, which brings in at least seven team members from every country it invites.

"It's grown now so much, that they're having 700,000 people coming out to see this thing," said Lepine.

Lepine, a Metis from Manitoba, is vice-president of the North American Indigenous Games Council. He has been teaching the Tae kwon do program at Toronto's Native Canadian Centre for five years. Lepine explained that his name came up "in a variety of different applications to do with Aboriginal sport in Canada," resulting in him being approached by officials of the Korean embassy who offered his group the trip.

"They know me, because I trained under Grandmaster Cho, who is one of their dignitaries from Korea that now teaches martial arts in Canada," said Lepine.

Last year, the 42-year-old demonstrated the Oki Chi Taw (meaning "fighter" or "worthy men" in Plains Cree) art to bring an awareness of the Aboriginal combat skills and techniques that all of them will demonstrate in South Korea this year. Oki Chi Taw, Lepine explained, keeps alive the skills of the warrior lifestyle of days gone by.

In Chungju, they will demonstrate three kinds of North American Indigenous weaponry: the tomahawk, of which there are "numerous kinds"; the short lance, just slightly shorter than the height of the person who carries it; and the long lance, which is eight to 12 feet long. Mock weapons are used for training.

Five of the seven martial arts practitioners travelling with Lepine are Native. They train with him at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto where he runs the martial arts program for a much larger group. Elder Verne Harper also is accompanying them to South Korea.

Lepine said his group consists of "members who showed outstanding performances in their martial art in the school.

"I don't just take junior belt members, because they have to have a good understanding of balance and what I call ... respect and honour within the Cree culture, of ensuring that they have the discipline to know that the things I'm about to teach them, they can't abuse them or use them incorrectly.

"So usually we start seeing a change in a student by the time they are about blue belt or red stripe level in Tae kwon do ... where they're really starting to mature as a martial artist."

That takes at least a year to a year-and-a-half.

"I don't look at gender, I don't look at race. I look at what they've done and what they can contribute and how much of a good martial artist they are."