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Iroquois Nationals Beat Team USA at World Indoor Lacrosse Championship

What could be better than jumping back into the international lacrosse arena after a year’s break and winning the first game in a championship series? Answer: Winning the first three games in a championship series.

As of May 23, that was the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team’s status at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship underway in Prague from May 21-28. The team is participating in its first international competition since a controversial governmental snafu last summer prevented them from traveling overseas on their Haundenosaunee passports.

The opening game of the championship took place on Saturday, May 21, with the team winning a resounding 23-3 over Ireland. That game took place on the heels of a six-hour overnight flight, a five-hour lay-over in Zurich and a one-hour flight to Prague. The next day they did it again with a 25-5 win over the Czech Republic. And on Monday, the Iroquois Nations bested Team USA in the third round of the playoffs in a thrilling 11-10 match. The Nationals are now one game away from the championship match. The semifinals take place this Friday, May 27, with the championship match slated for Saturday.

The opening day win was significant for the team, Iroquois head coach Duane Jacobs told the National Lacrosse League. "It was a big moment for us," said Jacobs, who serves as an assistant coach of the National Lacrosse League's Buffalo Bandits. "To get here without any problems, it was a big relief when we got off the plane. As for the game, we were a little bit rusty but we played pretty well in stretches. We'll be trying to get better game by game to prepare for the bigger games down the road."

The “problems” Jacobs alluded to occurred last year when the team was prevented from traveling to England to play in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships because of a bureaucratic snafu of major proportions by the U.S. and British governments. The team and its 50-member delegation of coaches, family members and supporters were scheduled to fly out of New York last July, but both the U.S. and British governments refused to honor the Haundenosaunee Confederacy passports that citizens of the Haundenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy’s six nations have used for international travel for more than three decades. The six nations include Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Cayuga. While each nation is a separate entity, they share a collective identity as Haundenosaunee and are issued Haundenosaunee passports, rather than individual nation passports. Both the U.S. and British governments said the passports didn’t meet new post-911 security standards.

Three days before the team was to leave the British government announced it would not issue visas unless the U.S. government gave assurance that the indigenous players would be allowed to return to their homes through U.S. immigration – a request whose logic was elusive since the team’s ancestors have lived for millennia in the area of what is now known as north central New York and there was no reason to think they would not return to their homeland. Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to leave their country and return to their country.

The U.S. State Department relented several days later and agreed to a one time only waiver, assuring the British that team members would be allowed to return home. But, in an inexplicable turn around, the British then said the assurance was no longer good and insisted that the players travel on U.S. or Canadian passports. The State Department had offered to issue U.S. passports – an impossible request, Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper and honorary chair of the Iroquois Lacrosse board of directors, said at the time.

“While we are deeply disappointed we could not bring our talented team to the world championships, there simply was no way we could accede to the recommendation that we accept either American or Canadian passports to travel. The Haundenosaunee passports we travel on – like the game of lacrosse itself which our ancestors invented – are essential to our identity as a sovereign people making our way in the world community.”

The Iroquois believe that the game of lacrosse was a gift from the Creator and so it is an integral part of the Iroquois social, cultural and spiritual heritage. Little lacrosse sticks are said to be placed in babies’ cribs. The game is ancient; French missionaries documented the game in 1636. Games back then were played on huge fields that could be miles long and could last for days. The game was played until one team scored two of the three or three of the five goals. Lacrosse was also was also described as a very important medicine ceremony, according to the Iroquois Nationals’ web site.

There were no problems traveling with their Iroquois passports to Prague.

"Getting over the border with our passports is really big," player Jeff Shattler said in a Canadian Press report. "It's nice to be here. It's a blast to be out there on the floor. Who would have thought we'd be in Prague playing lacrosse? Travelling with these guys is an awesome experience. It's great for Team Iroquois to be represented here with our passports. That's a huge movement for lacrosse and for our nation."

Three Oneida Indian Nation leaders have traveled to Prague to support team and honor its spiritual origin --Oneida Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter, Wolf Clan Representative Chuck Fougnier and Bear Clan Representative Brian Patterson. The Oneida Nation helped sponsor the team’s trip to Prague, Halbritter said.

A number of factors combined to encourage the three leaders to attend their first lacrosse championship to watch and cheer on the Iroquois team, Halbritter said.

“I think the fact that we’re sponsoring the team peaked our interest, and the diplomatic dispute over the passports last year unfortunately kept them from competition in Great Britain, and also because of the special significance lacrosse has to us,” Halbritter said. In February, the nation hosted the National Lacrosse League All Star Game comprised of some of the best professional lacrosse players in the nation. “And some of them were part of the Iroquois nations including our own Oneida Nation, so all of this works together to help with our interest in attending here.”

The nation posted a note congratulating the team for its “thrilling victory over the USA” on Monday. “The Nationals remain undefeated in the tournament and are serving as great ambassadors for the Creator’s game,” the posting said. Two members of the Oneida Nation, Brett Bucktooth and Ron Cogan are members of the Iroquois Nations and are participating in the tournament.

“It’s our pleasure to be here,” Halbritter said. “We’re just really excited and very happy that we were able to come and we really wish the team the best. We’re behind them all the way and we know that they’ll represent all American Indians very well. We’re very proud of them,” Halbritter said.