When I arrive at the acreage belonging to Anthony Johnson and Dr. James Makokis in late December, I spot them near the front entrance of their home. Well, their upper halves, at least. When we meet, the couple has just begun a complete renovation of their home, which sits on three acres on the outskirts of Edmonton, and they’re standing in a deep, recently dug pit that will eventually become the foundation for a new wing of the house.
In this crater, Johnson and Makokis are placing tobacco in the soil before the foundation is poured. “In my culture, whenever you start building a hogan, which means ‘home’ in Diné (the language of the people) you put things in the ground the winter before it’s supposed to be built,” explains Johnson, who was born and raised in Kayenta, on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, near the Utah border. He has a degree in economics from Harvard.
Their visit to the worksite also included traditional smudging — the use of plant medicine, often times burnt, to cleanse the environment to create space for positive energy. “We wanted to bring positive energy to the home, not only for us but the people helping bring our dream home to life,” adds Makokis, a family physician originally from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. “Plus, we had to come move out our old couch, which was in the way,” he laughs.
These renovations, which are expected to take six to eight months, were made possible in part by the $250,000 prize money that the married couple earned for winning the seventh season of The Amazing Race Canada in 2019. Not only were Johnson and Makokis the first two-spirit Indigenous couple to compete on the show, they were the first Indigenous duo to win the competition.
While The Amazing Race was an opportunity to challenge themselves physically and mentally, the couple — who identify as two-spirit, an Indigenous term that refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and feminine spirit — saw it first and foremost as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring awareness to the complex issues affecting Indigenous communities.
Racing as team Ahkameyimok, a Cree word that roughly translates to “keep going, never give up,” Johnson and Makokis took every step they could to Indigenize the race. The clothes they wore during the race included ribbon skirts — handmade by Johnson — to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women as well as “Water is Life” t-shirts (designed by Johnson) that stressed the cultural and ceremonial importance of water in Indigenous culture.
“Above all, the reason we even submitted an audition tape was to represent Indigenous people,” says Johnson, currently a project consultant for Kehewin Cree Nation, focused on helping revitalize traditional Cree midwifery. While the couple were still filming the show, they were already thinking about how to keep the momentum going afterwards. Before the seventh season began airing in July of 2019, the two had already decided their next project: Build a cultural healing centre in Kehewin.
“Initially, we just wanted to create a winter sweat lodge at Kehewin Health Services, but Anthony pushed us to think bigger,” says Makokis. “There’s no place for people to gather together that’s beautiful and safe, where we can bring elders to come and teach, which is what they want to do, but there’s currently no physical space where that can happen.”
Throughout the summer that the seventh season of The Amazing Race aired, Johnson and Makokis held watch parties around Alberta, at which they gave gifts of team Ahkameyimok apparel and other merchandise for monetary donations to the healing centre. Their fundraising efforts continued after the show’s finale and the couple had made plans to embark on various public speaking tours in the spring of 2020.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“We had just put in a huge order of merchandise in advance of the tours we were going to do,” recalls Makokis. “We were ready to go on the road and continue fundraising, but then the whole world stopped. Most of the money we’ve raised has come at events at which we can physically meet and share our story with people, so we lost a lot of momentum in 2020. Donations are still coming in, just a lot slower than they were.”
To date, the couple have raised about $100,000 of their $250,000 goal.
They remain hopeful, however.
“Hopefully with the vaccine on the way, things will get going again in 2021,” continues Makokis. “We can’t wait to get back on the road and meet people that want to help and be allies to the Indigenous community.” Johnson and Makokis have also begun looking for help in other ways.
“I would love for people to come out of the woodwork and give donations in time and materials,” explains Johnson. “If you have a Sea-Can shipping container lying around, donate it. If you have a contracting company that can pour a foundation, come do that. If you have extra supplies, send them our way. Donations don’t just have to come in the form of money. That’s what community building is about.”
In the meantime, the couple will continue to renovate their house, the progress of which can be seen on their recurring segment on The Marilyn Denis Show aptly titled “The Amazing Space.”
“We’ve always wanted to show people what it could look like to build a home that showcases your heritage and is welcoming and inviting but still chic and timeless,” says Johnson. “That’s why we wanted to share our journey, so that people could be inspired to create the same kind of energy in their own space on whatever budget they have. There’s going to be a lot of DIY and recycled pieces in our home when it’s finished. We’re thrifters, and we buy stuff on discount. You don’t have to have a big budget to have a beautiful home.”
This article appears in the April 2021 issue of Edify.