At the Indigenous Games, athletes are motivated by more than competition | CBC News

Cole Prosper is on a journey of perseverance, inspired by a coach who believed in him, the memory of his grandfather, and a moment when he locked eyes with an eagle.

The 17-year-old from We’koqma’q First Nation in Nova Scotia is competing this week in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in canoe/kayak, just a year after a knee injury he thought would end his ability to play sports.

“I just remember screaming in pain,” said Prosper, recalling the moment he tore his ACL during a basketball game. “I remember asking, ‘What am I going to do here? Sports are my life.'”

He is among hundreds of Mi’kmaw athletes, along with about 5,000 other Indigenous teenagers from around North America, competing in the Games. Opening ceremonies will be held Sunday and the Games go until July 23 in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth, N.S., and Millbrook First Nation in central Nova Scotia.

Following his injury, doctors told Prosper not to play any contact sports, such as basketball. The news crushed Prosper, who had hoped to compete in NAIG. 

“I cried because all I wanted to do was play sports and make it somewhere,” he said. “I became depressed.”

Sports with cultural significance

Weeks of uncertainty went by until he was contacted by Team Mi’kmaw Nova Scotia canoe/kayak head coach Robin Thomson, who gave Prosper the chance at another shot, suggesting he take up competitive paddling.

“Once I heard his story, I encouraged him to come paddle,” Thomson said. “It’s incredible to come from an injury and go through a tough period and find another path.”

Prosper was hesitant at first as he sat inside the boat, elevating his leg to ease any pressure. But he felt “at peace” and thought of his late grandfather, who paddled for decades. 

“I was canoeing one night by myself and about five feet away from my boat an eagle landed right next to me and we locked eyes,” Prosper said. “I couldn’t believe it. To us that’s medicine.” 

Paddling has a deep cultural significance for the Mi’kmaq, as does archery and lacrosse, which are also among the 15 sports at NAIG. Team Mi’kmaw Nova Scotia, also known as Mlkukte’n Klu’lkw Tla’teken, has athletes competing in all sports at the Games, which are open to athletes 13 to 19 years of age.

Ayden Pierro, the head coach for the Team Mi’kmaw Nova Scotia U16 lacrosse team, has been gearing up for the long-awaited return of the Games, which were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

He incorporates the sport’s philosophical aspects, which focus on respect for fellow players as a reminder that the game serves a greater purpose.

“You respect the coaches, the players and of course the game and the Creator,” he said. “I think they’re ready, but I don’t think they are ready for the experience. How can you be ready for an experience like this?”

Artwork showing an Indigenous man holding a lacrosse stick in front of the northern lights.
In this artwork by Gerald Gloade, the northern lights are seen behind the spirit of an Indigenous ancestor plays lacrosse in Wasoq, Mi’kmaw heaven. (Gerald Gloade)

Lacrosse, with its origins in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is known as the “medicine game.” It spread to many other nations, making it a highlight of the Games, and has been played for generations.

Pierro is the wellness support co-ordinator for the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Mental Wellness Team and visits communities to tell the history of the game. He recounts the legend of Glooscap and the Wizard Winpe, a story that traces how lacrosse was brought to Mi’kmaw territory. 

“It’s about two strong beings engaging in a contest to see who is more powerful. Both agreed to three games, with each winning the first two. The final game was lacrosse and Glooscap won and demanded the medicinal game for the people.”

The team had been preparing for the Games before the pandemic, and the delays gave the coaches and the Indigenous Players Lacrosse Association more time to restructure the team.

“When you go into your first NAIG, you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Pierro said, reflecting on his 2014 and 2017 Games. “When I went, it became one of the best years of my life and brought me where I am today.” 

Cole Prosper in a canoe on Lake Banook.
Head coach Robin Thomson suggested Prosper take up competitive paddling after his injury. (Submitted by Robin Thomson)

Cole Prosper’s father, Phillip Prosper, believes his son’s injury shifted his path toward a greater purpose. 

“It’s almost like fate,” Phillip Prosper said. “It’s as if my father’s spirit is guiding him in that direction. My father was very good at canoeing and was competitive. I think canoeing was Cole’s calling.”

Cole Prosper said the eagle that landed on his canoe reminds him to incorporate the Seven Sacred Teachings during team practices. 

“I’m always reminded to stay calm and be humble before getting on the water,” he said. “Once I’m at the Games, I won’t be the one paddling, it’ll be my grandfather paddling the boat with me.”

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