The Iroquois Nationals are not without a fight

I first heard about the Iroquois Nationals men’s lacrosse team back in 2010, when they appeared on the news amidst a political scandal. The Nationals – who were the fourth-ranked team in the world at the time – were headed to the United Kingdom to play in the World Lacrosse Championship. They first endured much political wrangling from the United States and Canada, since the Haudenosaunee Confederacy exists as a sovereign nation on both sides of the U.S.- Canadian border. In our post-911 world, tighter border restrictions meant that the team’s Haudenosaunee passports (which have been in use since the late 70s) might not be recognized as valid travel documents by international governments. The final blow came when the United Kingdom Border Agency stated that they would not honor the Haudenosaunee passports upon entrance to the United Kingdom. The Nationals had no choice but to forfeit their games, and their chance at winning the Championship.

Percy Abrams, of the Iroquois Nationals Board of Directors holding up his Haudenosaunee passport during a press conference. Photograph by Bebeto Matthews, 2010.

Percy Abrams, of the Iroquois Nationals Board of Directors holding up his Haudenosaunee passport during a press conference. Photograph by Bebeto Matthews, 2010.

The incident remains significant in my memory because it highlighted the issue of tribal sovereignty, and its direct effect on Native achievement. The bureaucracy of nations and the refusal to recognize tribal governments continues to limit the freedoms of indigenous people all over the world. The 23 members of the Nationals team represented the six nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: the Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk and Tuscarora – a nation whose territory once extended across most of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. The very name Iroquois is a French transliteration of several possible names, but the Iroquois refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee, meaning “people of the longhouse”.

Iroquois Nationals team with their national flag, the Hiawatha Belt. Photograph by Mike Greenlar of the Post Standard, 2010.

Members of the Iroquois Nationals team with the flag of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the “Hiawatha Belt”. Photograph by Mike Greenlar of the Post Standard, 2010.

Lacrosse: the Native game

The irony in the Nationals’ struggle is that the sport of lacrosse originated with the Native American tribes of eastern North America like the Iroquois. Lacrosse was one of many indigenous games played by tribes at the time of European contact. French Jesuit missionaries gave the sport its present-day name, but the tribes had other names for it, including baggataway, meaning “little brother of war”. Early French and English observers were taken aback by the violent nature of the game in its original incarnation, where “almost everything short of murder is allowable”. Some historians speculate that the lacrosse stick’s design descends from war clubs. Given the rich history of the game, and its testament to Native culure, the Nationals faced the greatest indecency when they were restricted from playing the very game that their people had invented.

The Iroquois Nationals formed in 1983, and are the only Native American/First Nations team sanctioned to compete in any sport internationally. Despite the unforgivable setback they faced in 2010, the team’s future looks bright. Last year, the under-19 men’s team placed third overall in the World Championship in Finland, after beating the United States for the first time ever in international field competition. The U.S. Senate subsequently recognized them for their achievements, and for having a “significant impact on Native youth throughout the country”. The team will continue to make history in 2015 when they host the World Indoor Games. It will mark the first time that a tribal nation has ever hosted an international sporting event. The men’s indoor team currently ranks second in the world, and the men’s under-19 team ranks third.

The Iroquois Nationals defeated Team USA 15-13 in the FIL U19 World Championships in 2012. Photograph by Tero Wester, 2012.

The Iroquois Nationals defeated Team USA 15-13 in the FIL U19 World Championships in 2012. Photograph by Tero Wester, 2012.

You can read more about the origin of lacrosse and the Iroquois Nationals in Sports Illustrated’s 2010 article, “Pride of a Nation”. Follow the links for information on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and video coverage from the New York Times on the travel controversy of 2010.