Dr. James Makokis

Dr. James Makokis

A Growing Dream

The clouds have merged into a swollen grey swath, full and rumbling. They groan once more before their seams split and rain begins to slip through. Dr. James Makokis is happy because he sees the rain as a gift for his newly planted community garden. He’s also happy because it’s part of something even more beautiful that is growing in Saddle Lake.

At just 32 years old, James Makokis is a family physician, role model and sought-after public speaker. Born and raised on Saddle Lake Cree Nation, he knew at just four years old that he wanted to be a doctor, and he has long dreamed of taking care of his people.

In pursuit of his dream, James had to first leave his community, and he was gone for several years. He spent his time wisely, though, and recently returned home toting a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Food Sciences from the University of Alberta, a Master’s in Health Science in Community Nutrition from the University of Toronto and a Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Ottawa. He also carries certification from the University of British Columbia’s Aboriginal Family Medicine training program.

Perhaps what’s most impressive, though, is that James has returned with his dream intact and an unwavering commitment to fulfil it.

Intertwining traditional and western medicine

James’s dream is big. His sights are set on restoring physical and mental health to his 10,000 band members, of which 6,000 live on reserve. In his health clinic, he intertwines traditional medicine and Cree teachings with western medicine. Using this method, he hopes to bring back the sense of community and individual well-being, which has been deteriorating since European colonization and the dark era of residential schooling.

“When I was learning medicine, I always looked at it through a Cree lens and a Cree world view,” he says. “Despite numerous government health programs, health statistics show our well-being is declining. And that’s why we have to do things differently.”

But doing things differently won’t be easy. In rural settings, health resources can be distant, and James says Aboriginal people avoid going to the hospital because they’re afraid they will be discriminated against. This in turn leads to untreated conditions and greater health risks. “There are a lot of unique health concerns here and social issues that stem from oppression — it’s a struggle to deal with these issues,” says James.

Daunting though it may be, James’s education, traditional background and roots in the community set him up well to succeed. Add to that his charisma and spirit, and he’s a positive force to be reckoned with.

Embracing authentic self

James has also learned a thing or two about managing adversity. As a Cree, he’s faced discrimination. And, as a two-spirited male, he’s also had his fair share of challenges. But throughout his life he’s kept his faith, stayed true to his culture and values and channelled negative experiences into opportunities to help others.

“In traditional Cree culture, two-spirited people were respected for their gift of male and female perspective, but this, too, has been eroded,”

James’s strong beliefs and support from his family allowed him to embrace his authentic self, and he’s volunteered countless hours to support gays, lesbians and two-spirited youth through community activities and speaking engagements.

In 2007, his community work led to his receiving a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and from 2007–09 he was the spokesperson for the National Aboriginal Health Organization’s “Lead Your Way!” youth role model program. In this role, he travelled across Canada promoting healthy lifestyles amongst indigenous youth.

This was a natural path for James. His parents raised him and his sister, who is a lawyer, to be high achievers. They supported their education, but they were also quite demanding. “They wanted us to go to school and to have clear goals, and a commitment to return home and give back to our people,” James says.

“They provided a loving and supporting home, even when I came out. A lot of two-spirited people get disowned due to homophobia, but it actually brought us closer together and enabled me to practise openly as a physician.”

With rainbow flags hanging at the door to his clinic, James makes it clear that everyone is welcome and there will be no judgments beyond his doorstep.

Bringing traditional medicine to the community

He also works closely with the community, which is especially important to his quest to bring traditional medicine into practice. Now learning Cree, he lives in the community and is studying ceremonies, learning traditional medicine and working closely with elders. In doing so, James is well on his way to making his dream a reality. By the end of 2014, his clinic will be one of the first to have an elder on the premises, with traditional medicine practised hand-in-hand with western medicine.

“We are one of the few First Nations communities in Alberta that have an Indigenous physician, and one that works directly in the community. Within the next few months we should have two more of our own physicians returning to the community to practise, making it three Indigenous physicians. This will be quite unique to any health centre in Canada.”

Seven Stages of Life

His practice will incorporate the Cree belief in the Seven Stages of Life, which has built-in cultural interventions to help people move between stages. For example, Cree teachings will start at the beginning of life, through a customized prenatal program.

Along with learning the basics about having a child, such as the stages of labour, James’s clinic will teach parents about Cree creation stories and why certain traditional practices are in place. “For example, they will learn why we don’t throw away the belly button, why parents reclaim their placentas and why we have wewepisun — traditional baby swings — and how they affect brain development… It will all tie into traditional teachings.”

The clinic will also welcome grandparents who want to help instruct their grandchildren about parenting and Cree culture. This will help strengthen family support and build a stronger sense of community.

As part of his venture, James recently led the development of a community garden. Together, he and people from the reserve planted seeds, painted signs and built a fence around the garden. “It brought people together in a really healthy way, and we are growing our own food, which helps address food insecurity concerns. It looks really beautiful.” The garden also contains tobacco seeds that were given as a gift from a Mohawk Nation in Ontario, seeds which have been in their plant systems for hundreds of years.

“Tobacco is important culturally, and elders will help teach about that; we will also use this opportunity to address issues of tobacco misuse.”

As the garden sets root, James believes community health will bloom alongside it. And in the clinic, he has planted many other beautiful ideas that are beginning to take hold. While he carefully tends them to maturity, he will continue planting.

“I guess you’d say I’m ‘living the dream.’ It feels good to be home.”