A year ago, James Makokis and Anthony Johnson shattered records by becoming the first Indigneous two-spirit couple to win The Amazing Race Canada. In addition to participating in the typical tasks required of the show, Johnson and Makokis advocated for many significant topics such as sustainability and gender and sexual identity; they even wore red skirts to raise awareness for certain issues. Within this webinar, Makokis and Johnson shared their personal journeys and their struggles, which they have used to transform themselves into educators, activists, and role models. They also explored what it means to “fully connect with our histories and embody the values of our ancestors.” This couple is a powerful example of what it means to use your platform to make positive changes and provide hope in a time of uncertainty.

This webinar entitled, “Our Existences Are Political”: Identity and History as Pathways for Transformation, occurred on September 23. It  was presented in partnership with the Indigenous Research Support Initiative and Alumni UBC.

The talk began with Dr. James Makokis diving into his life journey. Makokis is a Cree from Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta with a transgender-focused medical practice. He is also a leader in Indigenous, LGBTQ2+, and medical communities.

Makokis started off the webinar by explaining how he was raised to understand the significance of Indigenous land, which is not being respected today. To put things into perspective, Makokis told listeners to imagine an oil well being constructed to run through the middle of Vatican City. People would be very upset as the Vatican is seen as an important land both, culturally and historically. In other words, it is sacred land. Similarly, Indigenous peoples land is very sacred and running an oil well through this land showcases the lack of respect that settler communities and the government have for Indigenous beliefs and property.

Makokis further stated that Indigenous peoples should have the ability to live in peace and freedom. He encouraged everyone to remember the promises of our elders. Within the Treaty of Niagara 1764, a Wampum Belt was created. This belt depicts two equal boats travelling down the river of life. Both boats are working together, not impeding the other. What Makokis meant to explain was that one boat is not better than another; we are all equals and should respect and live peacefully with each other. This is what our relationships are supposed to be. No one is superior or deserves better than another.

However, this was not the case when Makokis began to attend medical school in Alberta. He discussed the inaccurate portrayal and use of Indigenous-based knowledge in this institution. Upon approaching his dean, he was told “you are being too political.” Furthermore, he discusses the racism prevalent in health care. During residency, a nurse prevented and verbally berated Makokis from going into a room to deliver a baby despite the fact that this is his duty as a doctor. Both of these instances are blatant displays of structural violence against minorities who are constantly being made to feel powerless by being told what to do and how to act, in addition to having their knowledge misrepresented.

Even to this day, Makokis explains how part of his community's land is inaccessible, even if the treaty dictates otherwise. He talks about how the treaty should be utilized to challenge Canadian law, which cannot prevent him from partaking in his rights. He also states that incremental change will not transform Indigenous health or education. It will take innovative thinking, renewal, but it is about time settlers fulfill their end of the boat within the Wampum Belt.

Following James Makokis was Anthony Johnson. Johnson was born and raised in Navajo Nation. Upon graduating from Harvard University with degrees in economics and social anthropology of East Asia, he worked in the tech and fashion industries. Today, Johnson is a self-proclaimed “spiritual nomad, artist, poet, photographer and cultural documentarian” who is passionate about motivating people to take action in their lives.

Johnson described his childhood growing up and how it was rife with different issues. Johnson’s brother had cancer, he faced trauma from the impact of residential school on his father, not to mention he was still accepting that he is a young two-spirit man. Thus, he describes going to Harvard as a hard-won victory, especially since he states that people think he shouldn't “exist for being born how he was born”. That's why Harvard was special for him.

However, Johnson soon found solace when he went to an Indigenous ceremony which he describes as a turning point in his life. He now wanted to set feet on the places where his ancestors once were. Johnson learned about his ancestors and how they used their traditional thinking to create a document to get their people out of prison. He talked about being inspired by the Blackhorse sisters and his own sister which partly influenced him to be a better person. With this inspiration, he began to attend different ceremonies around the world, going to pride parades, and teaching youth what it means to be Indigenous.

Johnson's dedication to motivate himself and others to change systems and social structures that promote inequality is inspiring. So is his advocacy on The Amazing Race Canada in which Johnson wore a “Water for Life” t-shirt to bring awareness to uranium poisoning in water. Johnson and Makokis also wore red skirts during the third leg of the race. “The red skirts with rainbow ribbons, handmade by Johnson, represent missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as to represent transgender and two-spirit people”.

Makokis (right) and Johnson (left) wearing red skirts during Amazing Race Canada (Image Source: Cultural Survivor)

Johnson and Makokis are both excellent examples of individuals who have utilized their own skills, talents, past journeys and their platforms to raise awareness for issues and topics that are close to their heart and what they are passionate about. As Anthony Johnson states, it is important to step out of our comfort zones once in a while, and make a statement bigger than ourselves, bigger than all of us.