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 encountered an eagle.
The 17-year-old from the We’koqma’q First Nation in Nova Scotia is competing this week in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) canoe/kayak, just one year after a knee injury that he thought would it would kill his ability to play. Sports.
“I just remember screaming in pain,” Prosper said, recalling tearing his ACL during a basketball game. “I remember asking, ‘What am I going to do here? Sport is my life.'”
He is among hundreds of Mi’kmaw athletes, along with 5,000 other indigenous teens from across North America, competing in the Games. Opening ceremonies will take place on Sunday and the Games will run through July 23 in Kjipuktuk (Halifax), Dartmouth, NS, and Millbrook First Nation in central Nova Scotia.
After his injury, doctors told Prosper not to play any contact sports, including basketball. The news crushed Prosper, who was hoping to compete on NAIG.
“I cried because all I wanted to do was play sports and get somewhere,” she said. “I got depressed.”
Sports with cultural significance
Weeks of uncertainty passed until the Mi’kmaw Nova Scotia team’s canoe/kayak head coach, Robin Thomson, contacted him and gave Prosper a chance to make another try, suggesting he take up competitive rowing. .
“Once I heard his story, I encouraged him to come row,” Thomson said. “It’s amazing to come back from an injury and go through a difficult period and find another path.”
Prosper hesitated at first as he sat in the boat, raising his leg to relieve any pressure. But he felt “at peace” and thought of his late grandfather, whom he rowed for decades.
“I was canoeing alone one night and about five feet from my boat, an eagle landed right next to me and we locked eyes,” Prosper said. “I couldn’t believe it. For us that’s medicine.”
Rowing has deep cultural significance to the Mi’kmaq, as do archery and lacrosse, which are also among the 15 NAIG sports. The Mi’kmaw Nova Scotia team, also known as the Mlkukte’n Klu’lkw Tla’teken, has athletes competing in all sports at the Games, which are open to athletes ages 13-19.
Ayden Pierro, the head coach of the Team Mi’kmaw Nova Scotia U16 lacrosse team, has been preparing for the long-awaited return of the Games, which were canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
It incorporates the philosophical aspects of the sport, which focus on respect for other players as a reminder that the game has 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’re ready for the experience. How can you be ready for an experience like this?”
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 coordinator for the Nova Scotia Union Mi’kmaq Mental Wellness Team and visits communities to tell the story 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 who enter a contest to see who is more powerful. They both agreed to three games, each winning the first two. The final game was lacrosse and Glooscap won and demanded the medicine game for the people.”
The team had been preparing for the Games before the pandemic, and the delays gave coaches and the Indian Lacrosse Players Association more time to restructure the team.
“When you go into your first NAIG, you really don’t know what you’re getting into,” said Pierro, reflecting on his 2014 and 2017 Games. “When I went, it became one of the best years of my life and it led to where I am today.”
Cole Prosper’s father, Phillip Prosper, believes his son’s injury changed his path to a greater purpose.
“It’s almost like fate,” said Phillip Prosper. “It’s like my father’s spirit was guiding him in that direction. My father was very good at canoeing and he was competitive. I think canoeing was Cole’s calling.”
Cole Prosper said that the eagle that landed on his canoe reminds him to incorporate the Seven Sacred Teachings during team practices.
“They always remind me to stay calm and humble before going in the water,” he said. “Once I’m at the Games, it won’t be me rowing, it will be my grandfather rowing with me.”