Why the Iroquois lacrosse team couldn’t travel abroad

The members of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team officially gave up in their attempt to attend the sport’s world championships in Manchester, England last week. Players were stuck in New York, battling a diplomatic traffic jam that touched at the heart of tribal sovereignty issues. The team–consisting of a 50-person delegation from tribes in both ...

Iroquois Nationals
Iroquois Nationals
Iroquois Nationals

The members of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team officially gave up in their attempt to attend the sport's world championships in Manchester, England last week.

Players were stuck in New York, battling a diplomatic traffic jam that touched at the heart of tribal sovereignty issues. The team--consisting of a 50-person delegation from tribes in both the United States and Canada-- was supposed to arrive in Manchester, England last Monday to play their first highly anticipated match against England on Thursday. But by the weekend, the team was still grounded in New York, camping out in a Comfort Inn. Yesterday, some players began to return home to upstate New York and Canada.

"While we are deeply disappointed that we could not bring our talented team to the world championships, there simply was no way we could accede to the recommendation that we accept either American or Canadian passports to travel," the team's chairman, Oren Lyons, said in a statement.

The members of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team officially gave up in their attempt to attend the sport’s world championships in Manchester, England last week.

Players were stuck in New York, battling a diplomatic traffic jam that touched at the heart of tribal sovereignty issues. The team–consisting of a 50-person delegation from tribes in both the United States and Canada– was supposed to arrive in Manchester, England last Monday to play their first highly anticipated match against England on Thursday. But by the weekend, the team was still grounded in New York, camping out in a Comfort Inn. Yesterday, some players began to return home to upstate New York and Canada.

"While we are deeply disappointed that we could not bring our talented team to the world championships, there simply was no way we could accede to the recommendation that we accept either American or Canadian passports to travel," the team’s chairman, Oren Lyons, said in a statement.

The Federation of International Lacrosse considers the Iroquois Confederacy to be a full member state, like the U.S. or Canada, with a lacrosse team ranked fourth in the world. The problem is that the United Kingdom does not and will not accept the players’ Iroquois-issued passports. The United States also refused to honor these passports, until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally intervened to allow for a special one-time waiver to travel without United States passports.

What’s really at issue here is the sovereignty of tribal nations. The U.S. government has a trust responsibility with the tribes, meaning that it has to look out for the welfare of tribal members. This relationship is a result of various treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government, as well as a a historic perception of 18th and 19th century Americans that American Indians "were not able to look after their own affairs." The general trust concept has since become standard policy and law.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is principally charged with maintaining federal trust responsibility, which includes the protection of Indian trust lands, the provision of basic services for tribal members, and the protection of tribal sovereignty and the rights of self-governance. According to Thom Wallace, Communications Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the sovereignty of tribal nations is constantly being brought into question around the country. Along with its work with the Iroquois Nationals (NCAI President Jefferson Keel wrote British Prime Minister a personal letter last week requesting that the team members be able to travel with their own passports), the organization is also involved with the Carcieri Supreme Court case, advocating against a 2009 ruling that made it harder for Native Americans to set their own rules for the use of tribal lands–including a parcel owned by the Narrangasett tribe in Charlestown, Rhode Island.

Wallace noted that the Iroquois Nationals’ situation attests to a trend in improving relations between the U.S. government and the tribes. "The fact that Secretary Clinton moved so quickly to grant a one-time travel waiver to the team on Thursday is an important indicator of the support this Administration has for working on issues important to Indian Country," Wallace said. However, NCAI is continuing to work to emphasize the importance of Indian Nations as sovereign ones through dialogue and policy development. "The effort of every Administration needs to be focused on this legal obligation."

President Keel’s letter to Prime Minister Cameron also emphasized the historical importance of lacrosse to Iroquois culture: "As you are aware, the game of lacrosse is indigenious to Native Americans," he wrote. "In the view of Native peoples, denying entry to game’s historical and cultural emissaries is a troubling scenario." The once every four years Championships is a rare recognition of tribal sovereignty.

Travel regulations have intensified in the post-9/11 world, and not only for tribe members. According to the AP, new U.S. passports contain embedded radio-frequency identification chips. While the Iroquois passports look like U.S. passports, they lack these chips. According to Wallace, tribes have been working with the Department of Homeland Security to address airline security and identification issues. Tribal IDs are currently accepted by the Department of Homeland Security Transportation Security Administration for both domestic travel and at the Mexican and Canadian border crossings.

Meanwhile, the Nationals will continue their fight to travel abroad with their Iroquois passports. Other international tournaments are upcoming, including the Federation of International Lacrosse’s World Indoor Box Lacrosse Championships in the Czech Republic next year.

Suzanne Merkelson is an editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.

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