Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

The most popular Indigenous lacrosse team on Turtle Island may be inching closer to competing on the sport’s highest international stage.

A recent wave of online support for the Iroquois Nationals, a powerhouse lacrosse program representing the Haudenosaunee people, appears to have caught the attention of World Games organizers.

The Nationals were left off the list of teams invited to the 2022 World Games, to be held in Birmingham, Alabama, because they didn’t meet the eligibility criteria.

Last week, the 2022 World Games issued a joint statement, along with the International World Games Association and World Lacrosse, confirming they are “working in partnership to explore whether it is necessary to change the format for the lacrosse competition.”

The statement didn’t mention the Iroquois Nationals by name, though it comes after thousands of people signed an online petition to include the team in the World Games and team sponsor Nike and others voiced support. The Nationals have been a member of World Lacrosse for decades. 

“There is no set timeframe for the conclusion of these discussions, as exploring reasonable solutions and finding an appropriate balance are the priorities," the statement said. "The World Games 2022 are still two years away, but all partners are very keen to reach an early agreement.”

A request for additional comment from the World Games and World Lacrosse went unanswered.

The Nationals have a record of defeating top international teams and had top-three finishes in the outdoor and indoor lacrosse championships. The World Games website, in the lacrosse section, even acknowledged the Nationals in a “fun fact” section, saying “lacrosse is part of the cultural tradition of the Iroquois people” and mentioning the team’s third-place finish in the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships.

Every four years and the year after the Olympic Games, the World Games hosts athletes in popular sports not featured in the Olympics, which is the case for lacrosse. The 2020 Olympics were postponed until summer 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the World Games in Alabama being delayed a year.

The Nationals, ranked third internationally by World Lacrosse, will continue to push to be included in the World Games, which attracts 3,600 athletes from more than 30 sports. The team also has an eye on the Olympic Games if it introduces lacrosse as a sport in the coming years.

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Rex Lyons, a member of the team’s board of directors, said the Nationals competing in Birmingham “just makes sense.”

“After the U.S. and Canada, the other countries really can’t compete, so it would be foolish of them to dilute the field by excluding us, and we bring so much to the table,” Lyons said. “We are the originators of the game. It’s our homeland. The marketing writes itself. I can just see us in the opening ceremony in full regalia carrying the torch. That’s what I envision if things were done justly.”

A Change.com petition started in late July to include the Nationals in the World Games has nearly 47,000 signatures.

“The Medicine game (lacrosse) was gifted to the world and other nations by the Haudenosaunee people, and to show this outright disrespect and discrimination is not what this game stands for,” the petition read.

Multiple lacrosse organizations showed support for the Nationals either through social media posts or statements, including US Lacrosse and the Canadian Lacrosse Association.

Native professional golfer Notah Begay III posted a tweet in support of the team, asking his 54,000 followers to sign the petition.

Nike, a team sponsor since 2008, issued a statement in support.

"The Iroquois Nationals and the Haudenosaunee people represent the originators of the game of lacrosse, and we support their representation and participation in the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama,” the statement read.

Professional lacrosse player Lyle Thompson, Onondaga, posted a photo of himself recently on Twitter carrying his nation’s flag, saying: “As Native people, we’ll continue to run this ever lasting track of hurdles. It’s timeless and exhausting but must continue to fight.”

Thompson comes from a family of top lacrosse players and is considered to be one of the best to play the game in the modern era.

Another player, Randy Staats, wrote an opinion piece published this week on the Lacrosse All Stars website. The article is titled: “Don’t take lacrosse away from us, the Haudenosaunee.”

“We deserve the legitimacy as a nation that our passports, culture and history provide,” Staats wrote. “We shouldn’t have to fight to be treated as equals, it simply should be. We’re human beings — the same as everyone else — and we deserve to be treated as such.”

An article published in the March issue of Inside Lacrosse Magazine about the team’s goal to compete in the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles if lacrosse is introduced as an Olympic sport recently resurfaced on social media.

Leo Nolan, Iroquois Nationals executive director, told Indian Country Today that the article recirculated in late July and with the World Games not inviting the team, social media noticed and many demanded an explanation. The team issued a statement July 24 that was signed by Nolan.

“With the next World Games taking place on land where our ancestors once walked and played, it is more important than ever to honor and celebrate the roots of lacrosse,” Nolan said in the statement. “And with the world crying out for peace and healing, there has never been a better time to include traditional lacrosse, our Medicine game, in an event that is intended to foster international friendship and community.”

In 2018, the International Olympic Committee officially recognized World Lacrosse, which some believe is a key step in lacrosse becoming an Olympic sport again. Lacrosse was featured in the Olympics briefly more than a century ago.

The World Games follow the International Olympic Committee criteria for eligible teams, and the committee does not recognize the Haudenosaunee Nation, according to US Lacrosse Magazine.

A request for comment from the Olympic committee went unanswered.

However, the committee has made exceptions in the past for athletes. A Refugee Olympic Team made up of people from countries with conflict was introduced in the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and another was planned for the 2020 games.

The IOC has changed the rules in the past, said Aileen McDonough, team director of communications. “Right now, what we are up against, these are the rules, is it finding a path or them finding a good reason to break the rules.”

Nolan said World Lacrosse looks at the Iroquois Nationals as the Indigenous representative for the world, and the team has included non-Haudenosaunee citizens, who were citizens of a federally recognized tribe.

“We always look to put the best talent in the field, both men and women,” Nolan said.

A big-time sports league adding an Indigenous team has happened.

The Professional Bull Riders were the first to reach out to Indian County and included an all-Native American team for its annual Global Cup, considered the Olympics of bull riding.

Team USA Wolves has competed in the cup for the past couple of years. The roster is full of professional Native bull riders representing multiple nations across Indian Country.

Bull riding is growing in popularity in some Native communities, especially in the Southwest and Oklahoma. Many compete and attend the Indian National Finals Rodeo each year in Las Vegas, Nevada, and some tribes host local events.

Professional Bull Riders Chief Marketing Officer Kosha Irby said adding Team Wolves has been a success.

“Native Americans are a huge part of the cowboy culture,” he said. “Probably one of the coolest things is when you go to tribal arenas and see someone walk in with a Wolves jersey, you realize how much of an impact those riders have on that community.”

Professional Bull Riders could expand in the future to include Indigenous teams from places like Canada, Brazil and Australia, Irby said.

“PBR is one of those organizations that if you're a cowboy who can ride a bull, you're going to have a chance to prove what you can do,” Irby said. “This is a touring competition open to any and everyone, and we want to make sure that we highlight that in all that we do. I think that the formation of the Native American team once again is a testament to just that.”

2020 Team USA Wolves (Andy Watson, Bull Stock Media)

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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