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Pauly Denetclaw
Indian Country Today

Rex Lyons can already imagine it. The Haudenosaunee Nationals lacrosse teams, in their traditional regalia, carrying their own flag, representing their own nation as well as the first peoples of this land, lighting the Olympic torch at the 2028 games hosted by the city of Los Angeles.

It’s a long road to the Olympics but Lyons remains hopeful. In the next six months, the International Olympic Committee will decide if lacrosse, a sport gifted to the world by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is in or out of the 2028 summer Olympics.

Haudenosaunee Nationals playing at the World Lacrosse Super Sixes at the USA Lacrosse Headquarters in Maryland on October 23, 2021. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT)

The game has only been an Olympic medal sport twice over a century ago. World Lacrosse, the governing body for the international sport of lacrosse, made changes to the game, creating the World Lacrosse Sixes, a game with fewer players that better fit the IOCs move to make the Olympic games smaller, less costly and reducing the complexity of staging.

If lacrosse becomes an Olympic medal sport, it will then be on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to continue fighting for their teams to be represented. There are certain requirements that nations have to meet in order to be considered a country to create a national olympic committee and then gain entry into the Olympics.

According to the Olympic Charter, “the expression ‘country’ means an independent State recognized by the international community.”

“You have to be recognized as a nation state by the United Nations, which we are not,” Lyons, board member for Haudenosaunee Nationals, said. “And your geographical territory has to be all encompassed in one area. We are not. We have checkerboard territories, but that's always been the way it is. Our territories used to board up against each other.”

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The Haudenosaunee Confederacy — made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations — is located across southern Ontario, Canada and upstate New York.

Being recognized as a nation isn’t the only way into the Olympics. The Olympic committee can also make an exception and allow the Haudenosaunee Nationals in, but that is not the route the team wants to take.

Going the non-exception route means the Haudenosaunee Confederacy will need to have four other men’s and women’s sport teams to compete at the Olympics. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy leadership will also need to advocate for their nation to be represented at the Olympics.

An unrecognized nation competing is not unheard of — Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands all have their own Olympic teams. The International Olympic Committee also allowed Russian athletes to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics, despite a two-year ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency. These athletes couldn’t represent Russia in any form and competed as the “ROC,” which stands for Russian Olympic Committee.

“We're not waiting to see whether or not we're accepted,” Lyons said. “We're just going on the assumption that we're going to be there. So we're doing all the leg work, whether or not we cross the finish line by the time the LA games come.”

The Haudenosaunee Nationals, long known as the Iroquois Nationals, have always fought for their nation to be recognized as a sovereign Indigenous nation on the world stage. It all started in 1983 when the men’s team became the fifth nation to join World Lacrosse, formerly the Federation of International Lacrosse.

At the time, the team wasn’t competitive and far from their current ranking as No. 3 in the world. So, it was somewhat of a novelty to have the team a part of the association. Until the team started to run a successful program. Then, everything changed.

“Once we started winning and taking medals and moving people that used to be in the medal rounds, like Australia and England, it wasn't so romantic anymore,” Lyons, Onondaga, said. “I felt a sense of pushback, where there was no challenge before, now, there was a challenge just simply because of that.”

Oren Lyons stands amidst the Iroquois Nationals with an eagle staff in Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation. Courtesy One Bowl Productions

Oren Lyons stands amidst the Iroquois Nationals with an eagle staff in Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation.

Setback after setback, the Haudenosaunee Nationals teams continued to prevail against rules that tried to discourage their participation. The teams have been barred from entering countries where they were competing because the teams travel using a Haudenosaunee passport - the hosting countries telling them to apply for a Canadian or American passport which the Haudenosaunee teams refused to do time and time again. Opting to forfeit their games over traveling under a settler colonial state’s documents.

“We don't compromise. We're steadfast in who we are. We know who we are,” Lyons said. “We were a nation and Confederacy long before our European brothers crashed into our shores and we’re not about to accept any position that they try to impose upon us.”

In the last year, the Haudenosaunee Nationals men’s and women’s teams have come under one organization in preparation for their Olympic bid. The Olympic committee requires each nation to have a men’s and women’s team.

The women’s team was created in the early 2000s, a move that was fraught with controversy as traditionally women weren’t supposed to play lacrosse.

“This is a secular game and why should every other female in North America have this wonderful opportunity with our game when our own women can't have those same opportunities?” Lyons said.

In 1987, a women’s team tried to organize but questions swirled around how this would impact the cultural and spiritual aspects of the game, mainly because at the time women played with wooden sticks. Today, they play with plastic sticks, so that is a nonissue. Some Haudenosaunee women do not touch a lacrosse stick.

The Haudenosaunee Nationals in a 2019 match. (Photo courtesy of Haudenosaunee Nationals)

The team officially formed in 2006 but under another different organization. For years, the Haudenosaunee Nationals men’s and women’s teams operated under different organizations.

“It was getting to the point where they had to be together otherwise World Games wouldn't recognize our nation, if we're operating under two separate factions,” said Claudia Jimerson, former coach for the women’s team and current board member.

There was internal conflict between the two organizations that has since been mended. This is where Jimerson comes in.

In 2021, the former team captain was brought on to help transition, manage and build the women’s team in the new organizational structure.

“From there, it's just been a whirlwind,” Jimerson said.

Jimerson, Cayuga, immediately had to figure out how she was going to conduct tryouts in the midst of a new variant of Covid-19. The new coach had to pull together a team to compete in September 2021 for the Pan-American Lacrosse Association Sixes Cup. The Haudenosaunee Nationals beat Argentina 17 to 9.

“It was awesome and they (men’s team) were very proud of us and all our communities were proud of us,” Jimerson said.

In July, the team heads to the 2022 World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship, which happens every four years. This year the games will be hosted by Towson University in Towson, Maryland.

As for going to the Olympics in 2028, Jimerson is excited and committed to helping make that happen. The 2028 Olympics is predicted to only allow 9,500 athletes, a thousand less than in 2021, meaning the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has to be strategic about what four other sports they choose.

"If they want to accept our country, we can't pick like softball, basketball, hockey, because now it's like, ‘Okay, we're going to let this little country in, but they got 200 athletes.’ You know what I mean?” she said with a laugh.

The road to the 2028 Olympics isn’t going to be easy and will require collective work to get the Haudenosaunee Confederacy recognized by the International Olympic Committee. But it’s possible.

“It's going to take a lot of effort, not only our board, but our players, our community members, our community governments, and Indian Country, because a lot of it has to do with sovereignty being recognized,” Jimerson said.

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