When I first heard Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was a black belt, I was a little surprised. You don’t expect people in politics to be into martial arts. But Matthew isn’t your typical politician. The discipline and patience that sustained him through years of training in Karate would later be applied to fight for the rights of the Cree Nation. Matthew tells us about his experiences as a youth in the martial arts and we find out that he learned long ago how to fight an opponent by using their power against them.
The Nation: How did you get started in martial arts and what did you take?
Matthew Coon Come: I was involved for seven years. I started when I was about 15. I took it in the Hull-Ottawa area. I started off in LaTuque briefly, but I did most of it in Hull-Ottawa. I studied Shotokan Karate. But there are many divisions in Shotokan. I studied Shito-Ryu.
Did you feel that experience changed you in any way?
As a young 15-year-old, the reason you go into it is different It has nothing to do with self-defense or discipline. You only learn that later on. I think I went in for the wrong reasons. But I think after three months in there I realized it required a lot of discipline, a lot of self-control, and I felt that was a challenge. It kept me in school. It was something I could look forward to.
Eventually we did bring it home to Mistissini. People recall that we started a club in Mistissini fora couple of summers. At one time we had 100 people. They all thought they were Bruce Lee after two weeks! (laughs… You always could tell which ones were serious and which ones weren’t. Most Karate outfits usually weed out the people who take it for the wrong reasons. They purposely do a lot of stretch exercises for the first two or three months. Then you weed out these people. I went into weaponry too.
Which ones did you learn?
Nunchuks, shai and the shaft.
Do you still practice?
Sometimes at home I do all the Katas. I always thought it was a good form of exercise. It keeps you in shape.
Would you recommend it to young people?
If you have the discipline. I used to take it two or three times a week. Eventually I did it Saturday and Sunday mornings, and I attended all the tournaments, full-contact and also the Kata tournaments. I won several trophies.
Do you have any photos of yourself from then?
If I did I’d probably throw them away (laughs… My mother found an old suitcase and I dug around and there were all my certificates and my belts. And my Gi was in there. I think you should look in there!
What was the teacher you studied with like?
I was with a Japanese guy. I learned all my Katas, all my breakdowns in Japanese. I understood the words for all those movements, drills, when to give a hit, when to give a block. It was a real cultural thing. But then I had another one who was a third-degree black belt. He was very good. His name was Desjardins. But the one I liked was the Japanese one.
What kind of person was he?
He was very disciplined, very focused. I felt his approach was to concentrate on the dynamics of following through and using other peoples’ weight.
So that was part of your system, not to meet force with force?
That’s right. If you were to punch me, I’d use your weight and you’d run into my fist…