By Stuart Miller-Davis
It was while taking Native American studies classes in university when Houston Texans defensive lineman Eli Ankou discovered a deeper connection to his own culture, as well as an inclination to help those who come from the same historically disadvantaged background that he does.
Ankou is Indigenous and Black. He’s a member of the Ojibwe tribe through his mother, Nicole, and has family that live in the Dokis First Nation near Sudbury. His father is from Togo, a small country in West Africa.
Ankou was raised in Ottawa. Growing up, he played football with the Cumberland Panthers before joining the St. Peter High School team and the Ottawa Sooners while in high school. As a 15-year-old with the Sooners he frequently matched up with players two-to-three years older than he was. After high school he moved to UCLA on a full scholarship to play for the Bruins.
It was at UCLA where Ankou felt he became better educated on Native American culture.
“So, for me, I felt as though there was definitely a demand for role models and resources,” he told the Ottawa Sportspage.
To fill that demand, Ankou and his girlfriend Shayna Powless, who is a member of the Oneida tribe and a professional cyclist, founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation.
In an interview, Ankou’s mother said she and her son shared conversations about what their vision for the program would be.
“He didn’t necessarily ask me about my opinions of it,” Nicole said. “But he did tell me a little bit about it. I said: ‘Hey, you follow your heart, man. You do what you got to do. If it’s helping out your people, your community, any kid that needs help? Yeah, just go for it.’”
The foundation has three programs that it’s a part of.
Project G.O.A.T (which stands for the “global offensive against trafficking”) is a public art auction that also partners with the foundations of Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin and of professional baseball player Johnny Damon to fight human trafficking. The project has an online auction where people bid on many different goat statues.
They’re also involved in a social media awareness campaign to bring attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and the U.S.
Dreamcatcher’s other major program is devoted to empowering youth through sports camps. Last summer, Ankou hosted the inaugural Eli’s Dream Catcher Camp at the Louis Riel dome. Roughly 150 kids attended the camp that Ankou reflected on as being a huge success.
“We had a lot of kids show up, a lot of kids willing to learn, not just about football but about life,” Ankou said. “That’s the things we focused on for the camps to get role models out to speak to the kids and kind of give them guidance on getting to where they want to reach as they grow up.”
A second edition would have taken place this summer, Nicole said, had the pandemic not taken place. However, because of COVID-19, Ankou was unable to host a second annual camp.
“We were so looking forward to so looking forward to this year, because we had a lot more kids, and also Indigenous kids, that had heard about it.,” Nicole said.
“The Dokis Bay (kids) … were so looking forward to meeting Eli and to have him pass time with the youth. Even the elders were asking about him. Then COVID-19 happened so, it’s been shut down for this year.”
Ankou’s activism continues as he navigates the NFL, where it’s not uncommon for backup-level players to bounce around from team-to-team.
He was first signed to Texans as an undrafted free agent but waived by them at the beginning of the 2017 season. The Jacksonville Jaguars claimed him off of waivers and he played in 19 games over two seasons with the Jags. His tenure with Jacksonville ended after the team put him on their practice squad and he was claimed by the Cleveland Browns. In Cleveland, Ankou started nine games and recorded seven tackles in 2019. The Browns assigned Ankou to the practice squad at the beginning of September where he was claimed by the Colts. The Colts waived Ankou on Oct. 16 and he was picked up by the Texans two days later.
Ankou said his biggest takeaway so far during his NFL journey has been one of patience.
“Sometimes things just don’t go your way,” he said. “You just have to tough through it and put your best foot forward every day. I think that’s something that’s definitely held true my whole career. There’s always ups and downs, whether it be in college or the pros. So, you got to keep yourself grounded.”