Feature

Gaming the State System

Can the Haudenosaunee Confederacy become the first Indigenous nation to secure an Olympic berth?

Miles Thompson plays lacrosse
Miles Thompson of the Iroquois Nationals runs with the ball during a practice and scrimmage against the Ireland team in Commerce City, Colorado, on July 9, 2014. Kent Nishimura/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Tokyo Olympics offered much of the world a needed reprieve after 18 months of pandemic loss. Now, some fans are looking as far ahead as the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles—and not just because the coronavirus pandemic will, hopefully, be a bygone era. That year is also the year lacrosse is primed to return to the Olympic field after nearly a century.

Lacrosse is more popular than ever before. From elite U.S. suburbs to college quads to Japan and Uganda, it is quickly blossoming into the fastest growing sport on Earth, with 70 nations in its global federation. But its return to the Olympics is also not without controversy: Lacrosse’s most important team—and its best player—may not be invited to play.

Lyle Thompson is the NCAA’s all-time lacrosse scoring leader. He’s also Iroquois and a member of the Iroquois Nationals—the only national team belonging to an Indigenous nation. Last August, the Iroquois Nationals was excluded from invitation to the 2022 World Games, a stepping stone to the Olympics—the latest political snub faced by a team from a once prestigious nation now boxed in by generations of legalese. The scandal was resolved only after a Change.org petition and a boycott threat—clearing a wide open yet uncharted path for the team’s Olympic participation.

Miles Thompson plays lacrosse

Miles Thompson of the Iroquois Nationals runs with the ball during a practice and scrimmage against the Ireland team in Commerce City, Colorado, on July 9, 2014. Kent Nishimura/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Tokyo Olympics offered much of the world a needed reprieve after 18 months of pandemic loss. Now, some fans are looking as far ahead as the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles—and not just because the coronavirus pandemic will, hopefully, be a bygone era. That year is also the year lacrosse is primed to return to the Olympic field after nearly a century.

Lacrosse is more popular than ever before. From elite U.S. suburbs to college quads to Japan and Uganda, it is quickly blossoming into the fastest growing sport on Earth, with 70 nations in its global federation. But its return to the Olympics is also not without controversy: Lacrosse’s most important team—and its best player—may not be invited to play.

Lyle Thompson is the NCAA’s all-time lacrosse scoring leader. He’s also Iroquois and a member of the Iroquois Nationals—the only national team belonging to an Indigenous nation. Last August, the Iroquois Nationals was excluded from invitation to the 2022 World Games, a stepping stone to the Olympics—the latest political snub faced by a team from a once prestigious nation now boxed in by generations of legalese. The scandal was resolved only after a Change.org petition and a boycott threat—clearing a wide open yet uncharted path for the team’s Olympic participation.

If they compete, the Iroquois Nationals will not be the only Olympic team representing an unrecognized state. Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and Hong Kong all have their own teams, as do a handful of dependent “freely associated states” in contract to a larger nation—such as Palau, Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia. The Iroquois Nationals, however, would be the first unrecognized Native American nation to join that list.

“It means a lot for the next generation,” Thompson told Foreign Policy. “I want to see my other relatives repping each other too. We’re Native America.”


Men from the Mohawk nation in 1869.

Men from the Mohawk nation—part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—were the Canadian lacrosse champions in 1869. James Inglis/Library and Archives Canada

The Iroquois Nationals—founded by college lacrosse star-turned-political firebrand Oren Lyons, his friend Rick Hill, and lacrosse stick-maker Wesley Patterson in 1983—was, from its birth, an Indigenous sovereignty movement, the latest diplomatic turret in an Iroquois lineage of transformative foreign policy. But as the team ascended world ranks—pulling from a talent pool numbering just hundreds of players—it has been carrying other facets of the nation state along with it.

Nestled between and beyond the Adirondack Mountains and Great Lakes in what is now the United States and Canada, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—the mother-tongue name for the Iroquois Confederacy—has existed for centuries. With a capital at Onondaga (outside Syracuse, New York), the six-member confederacy is a European Union-type alliance led by a 50-chief legislative Grand Council. As the oldest continuously governing body in North America, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca nations—straddled an empire before its lands were whittled and strewn, violently encroached on by U.S. and British settler regimes.

The Haudenosaunee developed the game of lacrosse millennia ago and fashioned hickory to play it. As early as the 1750s, Mohawks were sharing the game with Quebecois. In 1834, the Mohawk played a public game at the St. Pierre racetrack in Montreal, and lacrosse became a popular spectator sport. By the 1840s, Haudenosaunee and Canadians played each other often, and, in 1856, a lacrosse federation was formed in Montreal. Today, the wooden lacrosse stick—given to Haudenosaunee at birth—flies alongside a Nike logo. The Iroquois Nationals rank third out of the 46 teams and 70 lacrosse federations in the world—nipping at the heels of the United States and Canada, and miles ahead of the rest of the field.

“They’re the creators of the game,” said Paul Rabil, a member of the U.S. national lacrosse team.

“Fast forward four centuries, and the transition of the game has taken root. … [The Iroquois Nationals have] the best players on the planet.”

But whether on the map of politics or playoff bracketology, the Iroquois Nationals’ path to the playing field has been fraught, vexed by the same bylaws of the international system that have long stymied the Haudenosaunee’s own quest for formal recognition.

Although there is no law requiring the Olympics fit inside the United Nations’ framework, the Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires “countries” be recognized by the “international community” to become eligible as a National Olympic Committee. The primary reference for units of sovereignty since 1947 is U.N. member states. Complications with this definition begin and end with the obvious: The Haudenosaunee—like every other native nation in North America—is not an internationally recognized, independent state.

But the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was once a recognized nation that then became an unrecognized state. Haudenosaunee independence is enshrined mostly in individual treaties with other nations and not multilaterally through sporting leagues or international bodies.


The Two Row Wampum Treaty

Thirteen-year-old Michael Thomas reads the Two Row Wampum Treaty—an agreement between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee—on display at the Iroquois Village near Ohsweken, Six Nations of the Grand River, on July 13, 1973. Don Dutton/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was and is highly diplomatic. Unlike many Native American nations, the densely organized Haudenosaunee heartland lays smack amid a heavy corridor of colonial migration. This rendered the confederacy a broker between Europeans and other Native American nations—and ultimately decimated the confederacy’s territory.

The confederacy’s earliest treaty with Europeans, made with the Netherlands in 1613, is still celebrated today by the Dutch government. In 1710, three confederacy statesmen from the Mohawk nation visited England; they were received as emissaries and had portraits commissioned by Queen Anne. Haudenosaunee politics have been praised by everyone from Benjamin Franklin to the 1987 U.S. Congress. The confederacy’s constitution, the Great Law of Peace, was published in text in the 19th century.

The convulsions of the American Revolution tore apart the quasi-singular confederacy. Grand Council chiefs couldn’t agree on whether to support the Continental Army or the British. Some Haudenosaunee who backed the British resettled to the western frontier of the confederacy, delineated by Niagara Falls and under the Seneca nation’s general protection.

After the war, a portion of those who fled west were gifted land by the British monarchy in its Dominion of Canada. The subsequent establishment of Six Nations of the Grand River—which exists to this day—gave the splintered confederacy a second major pole of political society next to Onondaga. Much of the current Iroquois Nationals’ roster hails from Six Nations.

On the U.S. side, the fruit of revolution was quickly seen in the form of land prospectors, shaky treaties, and state-led contracts that devoured Indigenous territory up to its edges. Many acquisitions made then have been disputed in writing since the first U.S. administrations and still face lawsuits today.

The state of New York began transacting with native bands, a violation of the 1790 Trade and Intercourse Act, which prohibits states from purchasing Native American land without federal approval. Indeed, an 1802 memo from then-U.S. President Thomas Jefferson queried the legality of land deals with the Seneca nation. But soon, plans were in place to link the Hudson River to the Great Lakes via the Mohawk River—right through Haudenosaunee heartland. It was only the first project driven by private pockets that hastened after the War of 1812 and led to a precipitous loss of land. Between 1790 and 1825, nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy lost up to 99 percent of their territory.

In 1867, Britain passed a wedge of self-control back over to Ottawa in its Dominion of Canada. Lost in the shuffle was the transfer of London’s formalized recognition, decorated with a long-standing diplomatic protocol, of the confederacy as a foreign partner. Geopolitics and “settler sovereignty” were pivoting from seizing land to forced assimilation.

Canada’s settler government swiftly ushered in the Gradual Enfranchisement Act, spiriting to dismantle native governments. Then came the Indian Act, a series of legislation beginning in the 1870s and resurging in 1921—and still active today—seeking to belittle Indigenous nations via reserves, identification cards, and proxy councils as subsidiaries of the Dominion of Canada. The recent discovery of mass graves across Canada filled by remains of Indigenous children has exposed long-silenced massacres and reminded many of the forced relocation of the young to “residential schools” operating into the 1990s by the Canadian government.

Canada sought to eradicate nearly all aspects of Indigenous culture—except lacrosse. Canadians loved lacrosse. They loved it so much that, in 1859, Canada made lacrosse its national sport. But in 1880, Canada’s lacrosse federation banished native athletes from playing.


Chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy

Chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy’s Six Nations of the Grand River attend the dedication ceremony of the United Nations headquarters in New York City in October 1949. European/FPG/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today, there are 193 U.N. member states but 206 active National Olympic Committees (NOCs) registered with the IOC. Although there aren’t many unrecognized nations competing in the Olympics—besides Palestine, which has competed since 1996 and is a U.N. permanent observer—there are at least one dozen Olympic nations that are contracted in some form to other countries, often via a Compact of Free Association or otherwise delineated “special relationship,” Palau and Hong Kong among them.

Many of these anomalies can be understood as a result of arbitrating a confused category on the world’s modern map: the U.N. list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. Crossed down from 72 names in 1946 to 17 names today, the register functions both as a catalyst for emancipation and as a barrier to statehood. Being on the list isn’t a prerequisite for Olympic credentials, but it is a bit of its own tenure track.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa—none of which fight their own wars—are on the U.N. list, and all are Olympic nations. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, made up of nations whose land has been decimated by colonial expansion and forced assimilation—has never made any list of non-self-governing territories and is neither an IOC nor U.N. member.

But its athletes—in lacrosse, in particular—have already been bronzed by the Olympics well before the United Nations existed. After the IOC was founded in 1894, and following the success of the first modern games in Athens in 1896, both Canada and the United States yearned for lacrosse to be included. By the 1904 Games in St. Louis, it was an Olympic sport. Three teams from two NOCs competed: a U.S. team, a Canada team, and the “Mohawk Indians”—in some sources referenced as “Iroquois”—a team mostly from the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve carved from southern Ontario. The Mohawk team was sponsored by Canada’s NOC.

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the Haudenosaunee traveled to San Francisco for the new world body’s creation, which brought with it simultaneous waves of emancipation and codified order. In 1949, six chiefs of the confederacy attended the U.N. headquarters’ groundbreaking at 42nd Street in Manhattan with other heads of state. The New York Times reported “they were the center of attraction.” It didn’t last.

As the tide of colonialism receded and people from India to the Democratic Republic of the Congo gained independence, they received a key ring to their new units of sovereignty: U.N. membership. The IOC swiftly ushered them in too, with NOC codes of their own. The confederacy and its pronounced desire to join the world wasn’t forgotten; it was neglected. “Should an attempt at participation, either limited or comprehensive, be made by the ‘Nations of the Iroquois,’” a 1961 study of U.N. procedure and statehood found, “it could not be entertained.”


Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Oren Lyons of Onondaga nation (far right) poses with two other representatives of North American tribes and Swiss politician Andre Chavanne (second from left) in Geneva on March 11, 1980. AP Photo

In 1977, a Haudenosaunee delegation traveled to Geneva to partake in a U.N. conference on “Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas”—the first time Indigenous delegations were invited to a U.N.-led event. The delegation was led by Oren Lyons, a member of Onondaga nation and a multiple All-American lacrosse star for nearby Syracuse University.

They traveled on new Haudenosaunee passports, brown booklets with “Hau de no sau nee Passport” written on the cover. The document befuddled Swiss border police, who suggested they allow the delegation into the country on a special permit instead.

According to a Mohawk newsletter covering the trip, a delegate swiftly rebuked the Swiss guard, lecturing that a special permit dared to undermine the validity of the Haudenosaunee passport.

A Six Nations of the Grand River passport

A Six Nations of the Grand River passport is displayed in 2010. Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

“The important thing is not to get in” but “that every step of the way, our validity as Indian nations is recognized,” one delegated reportedly said.

The standoff eased when the Swiss officials clarified entry permits were standard for passports from all nations Switzerland had yet to formalize relations with, and the stamp endorsed freedom of that passport. So, stamped passports in hand, the new diplomats walked into Europe.

Although the Geneva trip fell short of clinching formal U.N. recognition for the confederacy, its new Haudenosaunee passports would prove key to entering a tinier, cliquey, and humble club: that of international lacrosse competition.

Thanks in part to Lyon’s leadership, more Haudenosaunee athletes joined collegiate teams in the 1970s—in addition to running their own native league—and, by 1980, overtures grew between tendrils of sporting federations and Indigenous athletes.

The Haudenosaunee’s first chance was an amateur tournament held in Vancouver in 1980, with U.S. and Canadian national teams also competing. Lyons, together with a Tuscarora student named Rick Hill and a stick-maker named Wesley Patterson, slapped up a Haudenosaunee “All-Star” team and won second place. Well-respected in the sport, Lyons represented a “bridge between the élitism of formal Canadian and American organizing bodies” and native athletes, argued Allan Downey, a professor of history at McMaster University, in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.

After the tournament, some suggested the Iroquois Nationals apply to the then-named International Lacrosse Federation (ILF). Impressed by the team’s success and charmed by its effort, the ILF members at the time—the United States, Canada, England, and Australia—outlined a series of challenges, essentially requiring the group to prove itself capable to field a viable national team—financially, competitively, and politically.

In 1983 at Onondaga, the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy formally sanctioned the Iroquois Nationals as the official team representing its nations. The declaration was formative to Haudenosaunee history, centering the confederacy on a single unit. For the Grand Council, it was a fundamental and explicit move to pivot to traditional culture and philosophy as opposed to, say, proliferating casinos. It also offered a potential track to national recognition.


Lyle Thompson of the Iroquois Nationals

Lyle Thompson of the Iroquois Nationals plays during the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship on the Onondaga Nation Reservation just south of Syracuse, New York, on Sept. 18, 2015. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today via AP

Ahead of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, Lyons and the Iroquois Nationals helped host the Jim Thorpe Memorial Pow-Wow and Native Games, which brought members of more than 40 native nations and the national teams of Australia, Canada, England, and the United States together. That year, a women’s team was also founded. In 1985, the Iroquois Nationals toured England, successfully journeying on Haudenosaunee passports as they had in Switzerland.

In 1987, the ILF admitted Iroquois Nationals as the national team of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, making it the fifth member of their federation. ILF membership hoisted new scaffolding around the concept of Haudenosaunee nationhood as a physical sovereign unit: Only after the Iroquois Nationals formed did the Haudenosaunee Confederacy design a national flag and compose a national anthem.

Since then, the Iroquois Nationals’ presence has been irksome, everything from a media headache to a political controversy to a fetish. As the Haudenosaunee passport grew famous and the team ascended global ranks, it was perceived as both an unbeatable Goliath and lacrosse’s golden ticket.

Iroquois Nationals tryouts brought athletes from all six nations of the confederacy. The first match was in Perth, Australia, in 1990. It was a big deal from the beginning: The Iroquois Nationals arrived on Haudenosaunee passports, the Haudenosaunee flag was flown, and the team lost every game. From there, things could only go up.

By 2006, Nike inked a deal with the Iroquois Nationals, which has been continually renewed since. More than a modeling gig, Nike provides the team with footwear, clothing, and equipment. It was one of the first-ever deals between a Native American nation and a Fortune 500 company and has since been renewed and expanded. It also instilled a confident, motivated momentum in the team, which has lingered with the medal circle; this was seen particularly in its new recruits, who would lift a golden generation of Iroquois lacrosse.

But the Iroquois Nationals’ newfound prominence also drew scrutiny to the Haudenosaunee passport, a growing symbol of the confederacy’s broader pursuit for recognition of its sovereignty.

In 2010, the now-named Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) championships were held in Manchester, England. Although a Haudenosaunee delegation had traveled to Sweden earlier that year without issue, both the United Kingdom and the United States said they would not honor the Haudenosaunee passports, nominally due to post-9/11 security standards.

The United States offered to deliver emergency U.S. passports, but the team’s athletes refused.

Brett Bucktooth

Brett Bucktooth, a member of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, visits Times Square in New York on July 12, 2010. The 23 players on the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team couldn’t fly to England for what was considered the Olympics of the sport because the U.S. government wouldn’t allow them to reenter the country on Haudenosaunee Confederacy passports. Bebeto Matthews /AP Photo

The Iroquois Nationals became stranded in Manhattan, and the ordeal created a diplomatic crisis. By the time then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved travel on Haudenosaunee passports, U.K authorities said it had no guarantee the travelers would be permitted to return. In 2015, the United Kingdom again barred the Haudenosaunee women’s lacrosse team from entering on Haudenosaunee passports to compete in Scotland.

When Haudenosaunee passports work, it’s often with prearranged clearance. Outside of athletics, citizens have traveled on Haudenosaunee passports around the world: in 2004 to Japan; many times to Switzerland; in 2010 to Bolivia, El Salvador, and Peru; to New Zealand and Venezuela, and through much of the European Union. (The EU, for its part, continues to list the Haudenosaunee passport as a “‘fantasy’ passport.”)

Since 2006, when the confederacy formed a Documentation Committee, it has been working to update travel documents consistent with international standards. In February 2008, a Haudenosaunee delegation met with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Canadian Embassy in Washington to iron out details. In March, the Grand Council of Chiefs chose to contract Siemens AG for $1.5 million to manufacture new biometric passports. When the prototypes of the new passports finally arrived in 2009, however, some key features were absent, such as the microchip.

In 2015, the Iroquois Nationals hosted the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in Onondaga. The theme was “lacrosse comes home,” and rather than travel on their own passports, the Haudenosaunee stamped those of visiting nations. The tournament—the first ever global sporting event hosted by an Indigenous nation—proved to be a success. It was attended by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and 12 passport-carrying nations, from Israel to Australia to Serbia. (Canada refused to get its passports stamped by the Haudenosaunee hosts.) The Iroquois Nationals opened the tournament by beating the United States.


Oren Lyons

Oren Lyons, co-founder of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, is pictured in Queens, New York, on July 16, 2010. Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

The now-2022 World Lacrosse Championships; 2022 World Games, and 2028 Olympics will all be in the United States, effectively removing the obstacle of Haudenosaunee passport trouble from the Iroquois Nationals’ Olympic path. But going from FIL competition to the Olympics still means a second layer of legal vetting and political scrutiny that will involve encountering the United Nations—whether by announcement or vote.

The United Nations celebrates Indigenous issues but has kept expressions of sovereignty at arm’s-length. From the outset of the Iroquois Nationals’ membership to the ILF—now the FIL—there was pushback from Canada and Australia, which had concerns about whether and how the Iroquois precedent might affect Indigenous aspirations in their own territories. When a 2007 U.N. nonbinding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed overwhelmingly, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—all settler colonial states with major Indigenous groups—did not vote for it.

The most promising precedent for a special Olympic invite may be the IOC’s special “refugee team.” With help from the United Nations, the IOC cobbled together a squad of athletes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria to draw attention to migration crises. Its launch was announced during the 70th session of the General Assembly in 2015. The team also featured in Tokyo this year, bulked up by the presence of athletes from a number of new countries who competed in 13 sports. The IOC is planning for a refugee team to reappear for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

If the Iroquois Nationals and the Haudenosaunee flag meet Olympic fanfare in 2028, some post-colonial governments with active Indigenous minorities “could see power slipping through their hands,” said Helen Lenskyj, a professor emerita at the University of Toronto who is an Olympics specialist. The Olympic Games “recognize a nation in quite a remarkable way,” she continued. It might be “a slippery slope.”

In 2000, when Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman won the 100 meter dash at the Sydney Olympics and did a lap of the field waving an Australian aboriginal flag, it “did not go over well in the upper echelons” of Australian politics, Lenskyj said.

In recent years, a proliferation of National Olympic Committees have formed throughout semi-autonomous regions, including Somaliland, Macao, Gibraltar, Catalonia, the Faroe Islands, and New Zealand’s island of Niue—all for a chance at the world stage to win a medal.

In the interim, Indigenous nations do what they can: wear hearts on sleeves—with a bazaar of merchandise. Iroquois Nationals gear gets scooped on eBay for hundreds of dollars in bidding wars. An Iroquois Nationals helmet was up for $600. A T-shirt went for $80. And a vintage baseball cap is going for nearly $70. Nike has partnered with the Iroquois Nationals and Thompson Brothers Lacrosse.

But bling doesn’t erase red tape. The Iroquois Nationals would like to be in Los Angeles in 2028, in time to meet up with its pastime and win. It needs a way to transform the Haudenosaunee lacrosse federation into a fully fledged NOC.

An NOC requires at least five different sports be represented. In a Haudenosaunee NOC, there could be room for an ice hockey team—also popular with native athletes—as well as baseball or swimming. There is already a Native American Olympic Team Foundation, which counts Lyons as a board member.

On the public relations side, things have been moving swiftly in the months since the World Games reversed its decision to exclude the Iroquois Nationals from the 2022 World Games. In addition to gaining new visibility on social media, the U.S. and Canadian National Olympic Committees signed on in support of the Iroquois Nationals.

Now, the team and Haudenosaunee leaders are working to form a National Olympic Committee and are coordinating with now-named World Lacrosse, the World Games, and the International Olympic Committee. They’re keeping their fingers crossed that U.S. President Joe Biden’s Syracuse connection—he studied law at the university, graduating in 1968—could help.

Meanwhile, the Haudenosaunee will revisit its application for U.N. membership, according to some of the confederacy’s leaders.

Like many Haudenosaunee, Thompson, widely regarded as the best lacrosse player on the planet, calls lacrosse “our vehicle.”

Lyons, at age 90, likes the phrase “flagship.” They have a flag. They want the championship.

But Rick Hill is more philosophical.

“The ball will go where the ball will go,” Hill told Foreign Policy, “and we hope it goes to the back of Canada’s net.”

Josh Kron is a journalist who writes about the Niagara Falls frontier region between Canada and the United States. He currently studies screenplay writing at Vancouver Film School and was formerly a reporter for the New York Times in East Africa. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Playboy, Huffington Post, and Congressional Quarterly, among other outlets. Twitter: @JoshKron

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