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White House Celebrates Lacrosse’s American Indian Origins

Oren Lyons Jr. had no trouble getting through the White House gates for a sunny July 11 event hosted by the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama on the South Lawn, which brought Native and non-Native children together for a morning of lacrosse learning and cultural sharing.

Representatives of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team had no trouble getting through the White House gates for a sunny July 11 event hosted by the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama on the South Lawn, which brought Native and non-Native children together for a morning of lacrosse learning and cultural sharing.

That cordial reception was a 180-degree turn from the tension-filled summer of 2010 that saw the players and other American Indians battle a U.S. State Department that was slow to recognize the validity of their tribal passports for traveling abroad. The White House didn’t intervene because few folks there wanted to publicly defend the authenticity of tribal citizenship cards and their use as safe and secure identification tools.

The problem for the team centered on the fact that tribal governments are sovereign entities, but the U.S. rarely goes out of its way to treat them as such. Many U.S. officials say they support tribal sovereignty, but practical applications of the ideal tend to cause problems for Indians. Tribal citizens have long wondered why membership documentation issued by tribal governments is not recognized by federal players as being equal to other forms of identification, such as state-issued driver’s licenses, or standard U.S. passports for international travel.

In stark contrast to the happy smiles on display at the White House for this year’s lacrosse event, consternation plagued the Indian lacrosse players last summer—and continues to do so. The team members have long held tribal citizenship cards in addition to Haudenosaunee passports. But three nations—the U.S., England, and Canada—all said last year that the documentation wasn’t good enough to serve as a permanent and sole source of identification for international travel. The State Department eventually decided the documentation was okay for one-time use so the players could travel to the Federation of International Lacrosse world championships in England, but only if they also presented a U.S. passport.

American officials also made clear that the Indians should want all the benefits of a U.S. passport: “Again, we and the British, I think, have the same view that ultimately, it’s important for these people and others to have travel documents that are internationally recognized,” former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said during a press briefing last July. “And from our standpoint, for those who qualify for U.S. passports, as we’ve said all along, the best way for them to ensure the ability to travel freely around the world is to have a U.S. passport.”

But what Crowley claims is the “best way” isn’t the best way for many Indians, especially for Indians who believe in their sovereignty. Many tribal leaders and citizens were disappointed by the Obama administration’s handling of the situation because they said it reeked of hypocrisy. After all, many administration members have said that they support true government-to-government relations with tribes, but when a real-life scenario presented itself that would have allowed them to show strong and lasting support, they offered a one-time waiver. They would not take a stand for the permanent relevancy of tribal sovereignty and citizenship.

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The lacrosse players, instead of being able to focus on scoring a win, instead were forced to face a major dilemma of self-identity. Like most tribal citizens, the Indian players retained their own tribal identification documents, and they wanted to use those credentials for the international travel. Their reasoning made sense: They were an Indian team representing their unique Iroquois sovereign nations, so why shouldn’t they travel via their own passports? Officials in the U.S., England, and Canada didn’t take kindly to the questions, and British officials ultimately decided that U.S. or Canadian passports were the only form of identification that would be accepted. Tribal documentation simply did not cut it.

The players found themselves in a major bind: Would they be true to their Indian identities, the very identities that took them so far in the sport of lacrosse, or would they succumb to an arbitrary rule that seemed to exist largely to weaken their tribes? In the end, they forfeited their chance to play. And they took with them a victory of self-identity. “[L]et 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,” said Oren Lyons, Jr., honorary chairman of the team, said at the time. “And 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.”

Fast forward one summer to the White House’s glossy event, set up to make abundantly clear that First Lady Michelle Obama cares about the health of Indian children. Lacrosse nets were erected on the White House lawn, 80 Native and non-Native kids practiced throwing balls back and forth on the lush green grass, Indian leaders were brought in to say prayers. All the while, administration officials beamed.

Oren Lyons Jr., too, was beaming, proud to see the sport he loves—a sport rooted in Native identity, originally founded by Iroquois Indians—receive such recognition. He had deeper thoughts going on in his mind than the child-focused activities at hand. When asked about its juxtaposition with last year’s complexities, Lyons at first said that it wasn’t a day to focus on that dark recent history. “We’re going to leave that one on the floor,” the 81-year-old said with a knowing smile, adding that he appreciated the First Lady’s focus on healthy children. Still, the tribal advocate in him couldn’t stay quiet for long, as he shared with a small group of reporters that he had first travelled to the White House in 1972 and made a plea during the Trial of Broken Treaties that Bureau of Indian Affairs honor its treaties.

If there was any lingering resentment from players of the team, none was apparent from the help a few provided to the White House in carrying out its event. Clad in purple warm-up jerseys, a few of them worked in stations positioned throughout the South Lawn, teaching kids the fundamentals of the game and the significance of its history in some Indian communities. Plus, who would turn down an invitation to the White House?

As to whether the players, perennial contenders in the lacrosse field, will ever be able to travel freely throughout the world on their own tribal passports, Lyons remains hopeful. “It’s in discussions,” he said. “It’s not resolved yet.” He added, with a laugh, “We have a stick for the president.”

Which is fitting, since presidents are supposed to carry big sticks.