Iroquois Nationals forfeit first Lacrosse game: State Department may waive passport requirements

By Verena Dobnik and Eva Dou
New York, New York (AP/NFIC) July 2010

The Iroquois helped invent the game of lacrosse, but an American Indian team may not be participating in the upcoming World Lacrosse Championships in England because of a dispute over the validity of their passports.

The 23 Iroquois players have passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy, a group of six Indian nations overseeing land that stretches from upstate New York into Ontario, Canada.

The U.S. government says it will only let players back into the country if they have U.S. passports, a team official said. The British government, meanwhile, won't give the players visas if they cannot guarantee they'll be allowed to go home, the official said.

Iroquois team members born within U.S. borders have been offered U.S. passports, but the players refuse to carry them because they see the government-issued documents as an attack on their identity, said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Onondaga Nation who works with the team.

``It's about sovereignty, citizenship and self-identification,'' said Frichner, who also is the North American Regiodeal Representative to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The Iroquois have used their own passports in the past, but State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the new dispute can be traced to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect last year. The new rules require, among other things, that Americans carry passports or high-tech documents to cross the country's borders.

``Since they last traveled on their own passports, the requirements in terms of the kind of documents that are necessary to facilitate travel within and outside the hemisphere have changed,'' Crowley said. ``We are trying to help them get the appropriate travel documents so they can travel to this tournament.''

Tribes' efforts to meet the new security requirements have been ongoing. A group of American Indian leaders requested funding from the Department of Homeland Security in 2009 to develop cards that would comply with the new rules, according to an agency document. Idaho's Kootenai tribe and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agreed last year to develop the first enhanced tribal card acceptable under the new guidelines.

Asked whether the Iroquois passport could be acceptably modified to meet the stricter standards, Crowley referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security.

That agency declined to discuss the specifics of the case. Matt Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman, said his agency was working with the Department of State and others to resolve the issue.

One Iroquois player, Brett Bucktooth, said he would rather miss the tournament than travel under a U.S. passport.

``That's the people we are, and that's our identity,'' he said.

Bucktooth, 27, also spoke of his deep cultural and personal connection with lacrosse – first played by Iroquois and Huron, perhaps as early as 1,000 years ago.

``My father put a wooden lacrosse stick into my crib when I was a baby, and now that I have a son, I put a lacrosse stick into his crib,'' he said. ``In our culture, we all start playing lacrosse young.''

Today, the Iroquois team is ranked No. 4 by the Federation of International Lacrosse and represents the Haudenosaunee – an Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Cayuga and Onondaga nations. About 90,000 Haudenosaunee, or ``the people of the longhouse,'' live today in New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, said Onondaga chief Oren Lyons.

The Iroquois team was scheduled to play at the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship that started July 14 in Manchester, England.

The Iroquois team and its entourage of 25 – coaches, staff and family members – would have had to leave New York by July 13 at the latest to participate in the tournament’s first game, which is staged every four years.

Members of the Western Shoshonee and Hopi nations also have traveled internationally using similar passports, some within the last few months, said Valerie Taliman, a publicist for the Iroquois team.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on July 13, urging them to help the team reach its destination. As of July 14th, Clinton indicated the State Department might waive the passport requirements on a one time basis.

``As a governor of a state with a significant Native American population, I know many tribes and pueblos will watch carefully how these young competitors are treated by the administration,'' he wrote.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, also reached out to White House officials on Monday on behalf of the team, Frichner said.

Associated Press writer Samantha Gross contributed to this report.