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Off the Reservation: Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team vs. America


Twenty-three men waited five days. For five days they stood ready to do battle on a field for their nation, but were at risk of being denied the right to do so. They are warriors who engage in a time-honored tradition of championship lacrosse, a game that was invented by their ancestors. Ironically they were being stonewalled by the two nations who conspired four centuries ago to beat their people into submission. Just how high and how far did the debate reach? It took Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to wave her magic wand and allow this team to board an airplane with the guarantee they would be allowed to return.

Percy Abrams, executive director for the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team, shows his Iroquois Nation Haudenosaunee passport during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, July 14, 2010. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton granted the 23-member team a one-time waiver to travel to England for the Lacrosse World Championships after they were barred from using Iroquois passports. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The 23 men comprise a team known as the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, an internationally renowned unit led by octogenarian Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation and himself one of the greatest leaders and orators of the last century. Their attempt to board a plane for England was rebuffed by both British and American officials who initially refused to acknowledge the Haudenosaunee-issued passports residents of the Six Nations Confederacy—Oneida, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Seneca, Mohawk and Cayuga—have been using for years.


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The American solution was, as always, simple. When the British Consulate refused to accept the Iroquois passports without a guarantee the U.S. would let the team actually return after the tournament, the U.S. State Department rushed to their aid and offered U.S. passports to the team members and crew. As usual this is where the breakdown in communication occurs in U.S. and Indian relations. First off, the Iroquois Confederacy is within the geographic territories of both the United States and Canada. Moreover, each tribe within the confederacy is a sovereign nation. Consider them uber-states within America for comparison purposes.

To date the confederacy has been able to cope with the issue of international travel because most countries outside of the U.S. recognize the sovereign status of Indian nations and the informal U.S. policy has thus far been to let sleeping dogs lie. But homeland security and big brother have made the issue of the Haudenosaunee passport more opaque and left U.S. officials with a conundrum.

On the surface it didn’t appear to be such a big deal. But in Indian country, everything comes at a price. If the team had capitulated and agreed to accept U.S. passports to travel abroad they would have established yet another dangerous precedent in U.S./Indian relations. Acquiescing to this solution would essentially have ceded the issue of sovereign recognition on a very significant level. And while it may seem innocuous, I can assure you it is not. Every step closer to acknowledging that tribal lands are nothing more than bizarre extensions of U.S. territory is a step closer to losing the fundamental rights of indigenous nations. This is more than a lacrosse tournament.

For Indians, the State Department’s American passport solution was yet another extreme example of hubris and ignorance.

The tournament itself touts participating nations from around the globe, including the Iroquois Nation. Imagine how insulting it must be to be denied passage on an airplane because some bureaucrat at the airport check-in counter fell asleep in history class and wound up creating an international incident. The Obama administration has paid generous sums of lip service to tribes in the United States yet has proven to be callous and ill-informed in practice. True students of democracy would know that the Haudenosaunee compact that binds the six nations of the Iroquois together was so thoughtful and long-ranging in its conception that it was used as inspiration by our own founding fathers who framed the Constitution.

Of course, none of that matters to the 23 men who will be airborne as these words are being printed on the page. Throughout 400 years of poverty, humiliation and genocide, they have played this game that is as important to their nations as baseball is to America and soccer is to every other country on the planet.

On the field these warriors are one with their ancestors. Off the field they live in a cold, expendable reality. By the time this paper hits the stands they will have emerged from their international excursion and presented themselves on the field of battle, jetlagged and weary, without the benefit of practice. For today, Indian country can be thankful Mrs. Clinton granted them this one ceremonial leaf of dignity to cover the wound that has remained open and bleeding for too long.

If you wish to comment on “Off the Reservation,” send your message to jmorey@longislandpress.com

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