NEW YORK – This is the year in which the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team became world-famous.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t because of the team’s excellence on the field.
The Iroquois Nationals – ranked fourth in the world – were supposed to play the opening game in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in England July 15, but the British Consulate and, at first, the U.S. State Department refused to recognize the team’s Haudenosaunee passports.
Despite a week of hurdles that ultimately prevented the team from playing in the tournament, team members came out the winners because of their grace and good humor under the pressure of two powerful nation states.
What began as a dispute over travel documents in an era of national security became an affirmation of Indian tribal sovereignty and the team members’ resistance to compromising their Indian identity and culture.
The 23-member team and their entourage of family members, supporters, and fans – around 50 people altogether – spent almost a week in New York waiting for Britain and the U.S. to honor the team’s Haudenosaunee passports, which had been used for world travel for decades.
It was a roller coaster week of expectations and disappointments for the players, who hoped each day that clearance would be provided for their travel to England.
Three days before July 11 when the team was booked to fly to Manchester, 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 bizarre demand since the team’s ancestors have lived for millennia in the area of what is now known as north central New York and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to leave their country and return to their country.
But neither the State Department nor Homeland Security would give that guarantee, citing the lack of security features in the Haudenosaunee passports.
The team had traveled widely, including to England, Australia, Japan and Canada without any previous problems. If the federal government had changed its policy in recognizing the Haudenosaunee passports, the Haudenosaunee leaders said, it had done so without consulting with or informing the Six Nations of the Haundenosaunee Confederacy – the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora and Cayuga.
The State Department asked the team to travel on U.S. passports, which they offered to produce quickly, but the Haudenosaunee leaders and team players declined the offer.
Chief Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper, a former All-American lacrosse goalie and honorary chairman of the Iroquois Nationals, pointed out that some of the earliest treaties the fledgling United States entered into in the 18th century were with the Haudenosaunee nations. To accept U.S. passports would compromise those treaties, he said.
“These treaties are clear evidence that we are a separate sovereign and that our people are citizens of the Haudenosaunee, despite the unilateral attempt by the U.S. in 1924 with its Citizenship Act. The Haudenosaunee sent a clear letter to the president of the U.S. in 1924 stating that we were not willing to relinquish our citizenship,” Lyons said.
The State Department finally relented July 14 and agreed to a one time only waiver, assuring the British that team members would be allowed to return home.
In an inexplicable snub of the Obama administration, the British then said the assurance was no longer good and insisted the players travel on U.S. or Canadian passports.
By that time it was too late for the Iroquois Nationals to travel to the tournament to play, which is called by the Iroquois “the Creator’s game.” Lacrosse was founded by Iroquois ancestors around 1,000 years ago and has profound cultural and spiritual meaning.
The British and U.S. roadblocks prompted an outpouring of support from Native organizations, powerful politicians, and thousands of people around the world and generated more than 3,300 news articles and videos in the U.S. and international media.
The team’s plight generated substantial acts of generosity including a $50,000 contribution from James Cameron, the writer/director of “Avatar,” and an offer from an anonymous donor to charter a plane to fly them to Manchester if the British granted a last minute clearance.
Lyons praised the team for its resilience and composure.
“We salute our team, who endured this struggle with dignity and the understanding that they were standing up for something that will benefit seven generations into the future, as true representations of the living Iroquois spirit.
“But let it be known that we did not withdraw from the tournament, and believe we won without ever playing by demonstrating to the world the continuing relevance of indigenous sovereignty in the 21st century.”