Interview with Canadian Aikidoka Kali Hewitt-Blackie: Aikido, the Coalition, and Beyond, Part I

Kali Hewitt-Blackie first saw aikido above a burger shop in California in 1987. At that time, because of her schooling and being a single mom, she could not commit. Upon returning to Canada, she met Yumi Nakamura at Aikido Tendokai in Toronto. She trained diligently there for nineteen years, and because of a number of factors, she left the Canadian Aikido Federation. Subsequently, she joined the United States Aikido Federation, thanks to a long-lasting relationship with and the support of Harvey Konigsberg. With Konigsberg’s encouragement she founded Sandokai Community Aikido. Later, she signed the petition written by the Independent Coalition of USAF Women; however, she retracted her signature on October 4, 2019. Today, she talks about her aikido journey, her motives in joining the Coalition, and what her experiences were after the Coalition-USAF Event. All images provided by Kali Hewitt-Blackie. This is the first of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Kali Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about aikido. 

Kali Hewitt-Blackie: I look forward to it!

MAYTT: How did you first come to find aikido and what has kept you motivated to continue training to this day?

KH: Well, in 1987, I was doing my Masters in psychotherapy at Antioch University in California. I lived in Sausalito, which is near the village of Mill Valley. One evening, walking through Mill Valley, I went upstairs, from a hamburger shop. I knew there was an aikido dojo there – I think it was [the late] Wendy Palmer sensei. Seeing people fly through the air made my jaw drop and my heart stop.  It was like love at first sight

Kali Hewitt-Blackie at Women’s Camp, September 2019.

But at that time in my life, my daughter was a baby – she was born in 1986 and was only nine months old when I went to California. My marriage was on the rocks at the time, so I ended up being a single mom, which was challenging. When I went back to Canada, I always held that memory of watching aikido in my heart. 

So, fast forward a couple of years, I was in Montreal, teaching psychology at a community college – it wasn’t so exciting. I was a pretty green psychotherapist at that time. I really wanted to do a doctorate (which, by the way, I didn’t finish my dissertation – another story) I moved to Toronto to go back to school to study feminist psychology. I really wanted to understand the psychology of women’s development because much of traditional psychology is founded on a male developmental model.  

I drove a thirty-foot truck, by myself, with my daughter, a cat and futon, to Toronto. 

Anyhow that year 1991, I randomly walked into a community center. I don’t know what pulled me in, but there was a dojo there. It was Yumi Nakamura sensei’s dojo – Aikido Tendokai. It had just formed. As an aikidoist you probably know the politics of aikido. Dojos are often formed because some “shit” happens, and egos get hurt and people leave. A bunch of black belts left Toronto Aikikai; instead of fighting, they just left. That dojo would wind up birthing a bunch of dojos – actually many of the dojos in Toronto! – and Yumi’s dojo was one of them. Yumi’s husband, Jim Barnes, was one of them also (Aikido Hokuryukai), and they were all part of the Canadian Aikido Federation. Toronto Aikikai eventually became part of the United States Aikido Federation.

There I was a white belt with a bunch of black belts, all men, and only one other woman, who was ikkyu. I stepped onto the mat, and I didn’t even have a gi. We had blue gym mats, no money for tatami mats at that point. Yumi Nakamura was a female Japanese sensei. Bottom line: my teacher was a woman! Yumi Sensei had been at Bansen Tanaka Sensei’s (who was a senior student of O-Sensei) dojo in Kyoto, Japan where she trained with Yukio Kawahara Sensei. She had a very special relationship with Kawahara Sensei, who ended up being the head of the Canadian Aikido Federation. So, my teacher was the highest ranked woman in Canada. I was with her for almost twenty years. Notice I say I was with her. I left my teacher and there were many reasons why. 

MAYTT: What happened that made you ultimately leave Nakamura?  

KH: Two senior male black belts at the dojo pretty much never spoke to me. They basically grunted. I figured it was because I wasn’t a black belt, not because I was a woman; I didn’t make this sexist assumption. I was training just as hard as they were. I was taking all the falls they did.

I also remember, back in the day, when I did my third kyu test, Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei and Mitsunari Kanai Sensei used to test all the students for kyu ranks. I told one of the guys who was one of the black belts who didn’t speak to me that I was really nervous, and he just looked at me and said, “Well you could fail.” And I thought “what an asshole” – I didn’t say it, I just ignored him. I remember my heart pounding out of my chest, and then somebody else said, “they’ll be other people testing with you.” Lucky me, I was the only one testing for third kyu, with a sea of people watching. 

Paradoxically, this was the first time, on the mat, that I remember feeling entirely “one with uke.” I was in this incredible state of bliss; I forgot that Yamada sensei and Kanai sensei were testing me; I felt just so happy. Loving what I was doing and feeling totally connected to uke.  Right after the test I walked by Yamada sensei, he smiled and said, “The girls are getting tough.” (In a good way). He complimented me. It was a bit frightening too. [Laughs]  

Fast forward, lots of students come to the dojo and often women would leave because they would get scared because our dojo was really rough. I was her first black belt; she “birthed me” as a black belt. I have incredible gratitude for everything that she gave me. It’s like my heart was just full and I can never repay her for that. I got my black belt in 2001 or 2002 – I don’t really remember because I was just training and didn’t think at all about rank. 

I was actually really tired of the kind of rough training we were doing and wanted to learn what I would call the “inside of aikido.” After taking classes with shihan like Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei from France and Harvey Koningsberg Sensei, from Woodstock, New York – I knew what I was aspiring to. I had been thinking about leaving. It took a year for me to leave Yumi Sensei because I was incredibly loyal to her. 

Photo credit: Robert Bergman. Hewitt-Blackie throwing Rebecca in a koshi nage.

Also, what happened was some incident with those two senior males. I remember the scene: we were at the community center. We had moved and had proper tatami mats. There was this sliding door, and it was raining outside. Those two were inside and had said something really insulting to me – one of them in particular. And I went outside, and I was about to cry, and I thought, “Fuck this. I do not need to be treated like this.” And I walked back in and said, “I’ve had it with you people!” That was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I was just fed up. They were always horrible to me, but they did talk to me after I became a black belt, so that’s why I didn’t think it was a “gender thing.” 

I really didn’t explain to Yumi Sensei at that time that one of the big reasons was that I was fed up with being treated poorly by these two males over the years. What I explained to her was that I really wanted to learn soft ukemi and a different style of aikido, which was also true.  

Greg Angus sensei had been with Seishiro Endo Sensei in Saku, Japan for many years – about seven – he came back to Canada and he and Ramin Arvin started Naka Ima Aikikai around 2004 (or late 2003). When Greg came back from Japan, he knew Yumi Sensei, so he came to practice at our dojo. That’s how Greg and I got to know each other and became friends. So, when Greg left Tendokai and started Naka Ima with Ramin it was appealing to me because Endo Sensei’s aikido is remarkably powerful, subtle and soft.  

In martial arts, you don’t leave your teacher…. 

I LOVED the people in my dojo. I think about it now, I want to cry. My dojo was a humongous part of my life – Aikido Tendokai. It was more than just practicing on the mat; it was part of my life – it was part of my heart. And when I left the dojo, those relationships were over. My guess is that deep inside – Yumi Sensei would never have said this about me – is that she felt betrayed. I’m an outspoken feminist and I had a Japanese traditional female teacher who was very deferential to men. Including the men in her own dojo, to be blunt. That was my impression. And certainly, to all the male teachers. But that might have been because they were senior to her, the whole kohai-senpai relationship is about being deferential. For example, when Kawahara Sensei came to town, Yumi Sensei would take care of him, of course, because they knew each other from Japan. It was a long-standing relationship, almost like family. But, I also realized that it’s because she’s a Japanese woman. 

MAYTT: How would you describe the training when you started? How have you seen aikido training change and evolve as time went on? 

KH: First thing was, I was getting bashed up. Nineteen years of training hard and taking ukemi that was really brutal. The arm locks were incredible. You would be doing shiho nage breakfalls all the time – hard shiho nage breakfalls. [Laughs] They were really wrapping you up so that you had nowhere to go. If you were in juji nage, they would barely let go of your other arm – like you’re on the edge of getting broken.  

So, here I was, a single mom and I’m at the dojo. I’m training hard – any class that I can get to I go to. I love aikido. I’m in love with the movement and feeling. And you have to remember Kawahara Sensei’s style was old school budo and it was rough. It was a bunch of guys and me training. I got smashed a lot. We didn’t do soft ukemi in those days. There wasn’t a lot of explanation. If the teacher taught you something, you said, “Yes, sensei!” and I spent nineteen years saying to my sensei, “Yes, sensei!” I drove her around. We went to seminars together – we went all over the place.  

Yamada Sensei was always really nice to me as a teacher when I saw him because we would always go to Summer Camp. I went with Yumi Sensei to Summer Camp. I think the first Summer Camp I went to was 1991 or 1992 – whichever the big anniversary one was. It was New York Aikikai’s anniversary and there were ten shihan, and they were all men. I thought that was funny. And then I found out that many, many years later that the really high-ranked women at Hombu Dojo, who were fifth dans — do administration, and don’t teach. I don’t know if that’s the same now. I also remember thinking, “Oh this is great! Ten shihan!” I just thought “ten teachers.” For most of my aikido life, I had a female teacher and it never occurred to me that a female couldn’t be a teacher. And that’s often the case at Summer Camp with the USAF. Way back, there were mostly male teachers and not many female teachers. For sure on the Technical Committee when Yamada Sensei started the Technical Committee, there were no females. Penny Bernath Sensei is the first female on the USAF Technical Committee.  

I remember when we were on a plane to go to Kanai sensei’s sixtieth birthday party in Boston and Yumi sensei said this to me, “There are hobbyists – we are “hobbyists” – and there are “professional aikidoists” – like people who have gone through deshi programs. They are professional aikidoists and we’re not like them; they’re different.” People who train with shihans all the time, like at New York Aikikai, are constantly training with shihan-level instruction have a very different level than the rest of us who don’t have shihans. Yumi Nakamura sensei is a shihan now, but she didn’t go through the deshi route.  

Dojo party at Hewitt-Blackie’s house November 2019.

When I left Yumi sensei’s dojo, one of the reasons was that I had met Endo sensei – he is one of the people who scared me on the mat, because he was so good. I can think of the few people on the mat that I was scared of in the sense that they were so present that they were frightening – like Nobuyoshi Tamura shihan –just disappeared. [Laughs] I went to grab his arm; it was just like “Ahhhhhh!” and just fell. Where did that hole come from? [Laughs] Harvey Konigsberg Sensei was another one; you would grab him, and he would already have your center – “Whoa!  How did that happen?” and Endo Sensei, he was just beyond remarkable. And Tamura Sensei, I remember all the other shihan going to Tamura Sensei’s class at Summer Camp. I remember that Yamada Sensei was my partner for one of those classes and we were doing suwari waza for the whole class. It was the highlight of my aikido career. [Laughs] 

I was so nervous, because he was Yamada Sensei. Yamada Sensei is fundamentally the father of the USAF. Within that organization he fosters collaborative relationships and created a family where watches over his students with his whole heart. Not only is his aikido exemplary, he actually remembers details about his students, from all over the world. He once asked me, many years ago, in Florida, “How is your toe, Kali?” Yamada Sensei pays attention to all the little details and gestures in relationships – something so simple as a handwritten note, means a lot.

As an aside, when my daughter was three, Yumi Sensei said I had to get a babysitter. Because I was a single mother, I was hauling her to the dojo all the time. She used to sit in the back and watch people. Then she would make them little presents. While everyone was in seiza, she would put them behind their feet. It was the cutest thing, but dangerous; a little kid on the mat. Ergo, the babysitter. When Karla got older, we started the kids’ class at Yumi Sensei’s dojo because of her. That’s what is beautiful about the dojo too – beautiful things can happen there as well. 

MAYTT: I see. After leaving Nakamura, you trained at Angus’ dojo, Naka Ima Aikikai. What were your experiences there?

KH: So, I went and trained with Greg Sensei, and I learned a whole other part of aikido and the aikido world. I was there for many years.  

There was a guy at the dojo who was a junior black belt, and I didn’t realize that he wasn’t “all there.” He was charged with an assault of a chiropractor who he was dating. As a woman, I was outraged. One day, I was going to teach a Wednesday class and before class, he was in my face. He puffed himself up – he was a boxer also – and he said to me, “Get out!” He was basically trying to bully me out of the dojo. This guy also taught the kids’ class at Naka Ima, which is freaky to me. So, he’s charged with assault, teaches the kids class, tries to bully me out of the dojo and Greg sensei does nothing. Greg was also my “friend.” I didn’t even think of him as the sensei because Ramin, Greg, and I were very similar ranks. He happened to be the chief instructor. 

The crazy thing is, I had brought this guy (who was later charged) to the dojo because I thought he was a really good aikidoist. He had talent and he had been in Japan. Then I find out that he’s an asshole. He also dated my daughter by the way. It is this big, complicated story. You know how dojos are: very intimate – they can get really intimate.  

So, what happened was, I left, and I went to try to talk to Greg Sensei. He never spoke to me about it! He didn’t want to get rid of this guy. I tried to talk to him. He wasn’t interested. The guy wasn’t convicted. He got off on some technicality. He was pulling the girl’s hair, dragging her, (apparently) down the hall and because they lived together or something, he had the right to be in the place. Her bruises didn’t count as “evidence”. Seemed ridiculous to me. The reality is, Greg sensei didn’t do anything, and I thought that I could not be at a dojo where this kind of shit happens. So, I left another dojo.  

MAYTT: Wow. That sounds hard leaving again after only just arriving there. Where did you go to after Naka Ima Aikido?  

KH: Well, before all of this, we were still a part of the CAF. Endo Sensei came to visit from Japan and because Greg sensei had been Endo Sensei’s student, he asked him to officiate the testing of his students – which is normal in aikido. In the Canadian Aikido Federation guidelines, only Kawahara Sensei or Kawahara’s designate, who is Yamada Sensei, could test the students, no one else. So, what happens is, they didn’t let Endo Sensei’s testing count because of some dumb rule. 

At that point Endo Sensei was seventh dan, a shihan who teaches at Hombu dojo, visiting his own student and testing his own student’s students. I don’t get it. The technical committee of CAF was all at that seminar, they walked out. Here we had a bunch of students who tested, and we couldn’t count those tests. I didn’t realize in the moment because they did that. After I realized it was probably their way of showing they disapproved en masse. 

For the longest time, I never saw the politics of aikido. I’m telling you what I realize now in hindsight, but at that moment, I was wondering why they were walking out. It didn’t occur to me that somehow it was their passive-aggressive way of saying something. It didn’t occur to me, but it was. This is my assumption. Afterwards, Greg’s dojo became part of the USAF. 

Harvey Sensei invited me to join Woodstock Aikido and he encouraged me to start my own dojo, after my experience at Greg’s dojo. 

At New York Aikikai visiting Yoshimitsu Yamada with Harvey Konigsberg (center left),
Marilyn St. John (far left), Hewitt-Blackie (center right) and Robert Bergman (far right), May 2018.

I thought, “Oh geez.” [Laughs] I really wanted to start a community dojo, so I went to my local community center. I talked to the guy who was the community center director, who was a Rasta and he said “okay”. I asked my friend Robert, who had some tatami mats to loan me the mats. Robert, who helped me was also at Naka Ima Aikido and he knew what had happened. Robert was also a sensei and a videographer. He would turn part of his studio into an impromptu “dojo” where Hiroaki “Rocky” Izumi Sensei would demo. Rocky Sensei was Kawahara Sensei’s student. He went down to Barbados and Jamaica and that’s how we ended up having a relationship with the dojo down in Jamaica. In aikido, we all know one another somehow. Rocky Sensei would come, and we would do these videos about Rocky Sensei’s “use of the thumb” in aikido. [Laughs] We would all come, back in the day, take ukemi for these videos. Years ago, we didn’t have any videos. We didn’t have videos of Yamada Sensei or Harvey Sensei. Robert and I went down to Woodstock Aikido to film a documentary about Harvey Sensei in May 2018.

I thought, you know what, any time that I’m in someone else’s dojo, they’re setting the tone. My style, at that point, was that I really wanted to understand that feeling of connection – it’s not about fighting, it’s about being blended at, “Hello.” I wanted that feeling and I wanted to understand it somatically.  

When I started my dojo, it was called Regent Park Community Aikikai and it was free for students. I had people who lived in public housing, I had a blind student – who I taught to do aikido – it was amazing. And then, I was in the USAF. I basically “defected” from the CAF, and I would see people on occasion. I would go back to visit Yumi Nakamura Sensei’s dojo and train with them. I was always polite, but the relationship became formal. 

I thought, I’m going to create a dojo because, for me, aikido is not about “aikido;” it’s how we take aikido off the mat and how we LIVE it. If I’m not living it, then I’m not peaceful, and I’m not being the person I want to be. That’s the reason: I wanted a free dojo. I wanted to be able to set the tone. I wanted to be able to be part of something that I felt we could build as a community – people who help each other on the mat and off the mat. That’s what I did. We had the free space up until the pandemic. When the pandemic was over the community center didn’t let us continue to use the space. So, my dojo was in flux at that point. 

This is the first of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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