The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and the rest of Indian country proudly supported the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) exercise of sovereignty during the recent controversy that took place in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship. The issue began on July 11, when the United Kingdom and United States refused to recognize the Iroquois Confederacy passports presented by team players and denied the Iroquois Nationals visas to enter the country. It is ironic that the people who invented the game of lacrosse could not participate in a world lacrosse event. What ensued turned out to be a public relations embarrassment for the United States and Britain as they kept the Iroquois Nationals Team from flying out of New York City.
The exercise of tribal sovereignty and tribal government self-determination made the news throughout the week in the media; New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and the Associated Press all reported on the story as it attracted national attention for Indian country. The fate of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team sparked dialogue on the true meaning and significance of tribal sovereignty. According to Percy Abrahams, the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals, the Iroquois Confederacy is over 1,000 years old, predating the American and Canadian governments, and it was for this reason the Iroquois Nationals have a right to utilize their tribal passports. This was a conscious decision to exercise tribal self-determination and proudly inform the world that the Iroquois Nation, separate and sovereign from the United States team, was representing their country in the world championships.
The Iroquois Nationals are ranked No. 4 in the world and are the only Native American team sanctioned to compete in any sport nationally. This was not the first time the Iroquois Nationals traveled on their tribal passports. They have travelled to places such as Japan and Australia while placing fourth in the World Lacrosse Championships in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Despite a last minute intervention by the U.S. State Department to allow the team to travel on the tribal passports with a one-time waiver, British officials still denied the team entry.
In the end, it was the United States that won the gold, after defeating Canada by a score of 12-10. The Iroquois Nationals were not allowed the opportunity to participate, and we will never know what the team could have achieved in 2010. However, in a display of decorum and sportsmanship, and the long-time traditional belief of our Indian people to strike a balance out of disharmony, in late July, the team saluted the FIL and the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship and congratulated the championship teams from the USA and Canada.
Lacrosse is much more than just another international game and local sport to the Iroquois Nationals. Their Iroquois ancestors in the U.S. and Canada created the game of Deyhontsigwa’ehs,” later known as lacrosse. This native ball sport was and still is an important part of the Iroquois traditions. They played the game to resolve conflicts, heal the sick, prepare for war, and to create strong warriors ready to protect the tribe at any moment. The modern game of lacrosse, essentially unchanged since the 12th century, has always had a role in the Northeast tribal way of life because it was a training ground to instill the “spirit of combat.”
Today, just as in centuries past, it is important that tribes protect their cultural heritage and customs. The Iroquois Nationals team is a reflection of this effort. It is important that tribes assert their sovereignty and continue to work with the United States to show them that tribal governments are capable of regulating tribal citizens’ travel up to the international standards required by other countries. The National Indian Gaming Association is committed to fighting this fight alongside all of Indian country until we can resolve these bureaucratic issues on a government-to-government basis. Tribes have earned this respect as the indigenous people of North America and they shall never waiver in defending tribal sovereignty. All too often we throw around the word ”warrior” or use the term in general in sports. The Iroquois Nationals and their defense and their stand for sovereignty are an exercise and a true example of what our ancestors instilled in them as true warriors of not only the Iroquois Nation, but all of Indian country.