The World Cup games this summer highlighted, for a moment, the feel-good harmony of athletic competition and cooperation across borders. But this week, borders imperiled sportsmanship for the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team. The travel restrictions that effectively barred them from a major tournament in England marked the limitations, and the vitality, of the sovereignty claimed by America’s indigenous peoples.
The highly ranked team of 23 North American players was to play in the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, representing the Iroquois or Six Nations Confederacy. But they were blocked from boarding a U.K.-bound flight because their special passports were from the Iroquois Confederacy, not the U.S. or Canada. Late Friday, they finally gave up, realizing that the travel delays and the British government’s refusal to grant visas had already killed their chances of making the first two matches. The post-9/11 skies turned out to not be very friendly to unconventional concepts of nationhood.
Representing the Confederacy in a sport historically tied to Native Americans was the team’s priority, and they saw their tribal passports as their true documentation of citizenship. But when the players tried to fly to Manchester using their previously accepted tribal passports, their sporting aspirations turned into a diplomatic fracas. They were grounded at New York’s JFK airport and spent the next few days pleading with the State Department and President Obama to find a way around the Department of Homeland Security’s ever-growing security gantlet, which has tightened standards for passports. The New York Times reports, “The Iroquois passports are partly handwritten and lack the holograms and other technological features that guard against forgeries.”
On Wednesday, after their snafu had caught the attention of the media and activists, Secretary of State Clinton gave the team a one-time pass to travel without official U.S. passports, But the State Department’s green light apparently failed to convince the British government that the Iroquois Nationals weren’t smuggling weapons of mass destruction in their nets.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, commented to the Times, “I just didn’t understand why a country would go through all these hoops to deny an indigenous team the opportunity to compete in an international game.”
The transcontinental post-colonial epic had a bittersweet end. As the confusion swelled, the team ultimately bowed out, deciding to maintain their national identity in defiance, rather than pursue their championship dream.
The Indigenous Law Institute’s Steven Newcomb declared, “the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] right to travel to and from their home territory is an ancestral birthright, a fundamental right, and an international human right.”
By refusing from the start to suppress their indigenous identities to jump through bureaucratic hoops, the Nationals emerged with a triumph of a different sort.
Marty Ward, a 25-year-old goalie, told the Times: “We fought a battle that was bigger than lacrosse…. It brought indigenous people back to the forefront. It let everyone know that we’re still here — we haven’t gone anywhere.”
The team had to stay put in more ways than one. They were stranded at the airport by political ineptitude—exposing the absurdity of two governments’ misplaced national-security neurosis. But viewed from another angle, it was the team that chose not to move, refusing to go along with the legal status quo, so they could maintain their sovereignty. They had to let their shot at the championship pass them by, but they scored a bigger victory by standing their ground.
Photo: Iroquois Nationals