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Iroquois find victory in spurning lacrosse worlds

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By John Wawrow
Buffalo, New York (AP) July 2010

Percy Abrams stood outside a lacrosse field downtown, an ocean away from his sport’s world championships.

Abrams is executive director of the Iroquois Nationals, and he was left to dwell on what was won and what was lost by refusing to travel to England on non-Native passports. The Iroquois team made international headlines last week, bringing to the forefront long-standing concerns North American tribes have over sovereign rights. They did so by refusing to board a plane to England with anything but their Iroquois Confederacy-issued passports, which lack the technology and requirements in a post-Sept. 11, 2001 world.

His team was ranked fourth in the world and had a chance to challenge the United States and Canada, perennial powers who play for the title Saturday in Manchester.

“It’s like an open wound right now because the games aren’t over,” Abrams said. “We know that those teams didn’t have to come through us in order to get to that cup.”

Abrams smiled when informed that the Empire State Games’ Central New York lacrosse team, playing on the field before him, was honoring the Nationals’ decision by placing the Six Nations’ emblem on the back of their helmets.

Though the U.S. State Department, at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, intervened to allow the team a one-time travel waiver, the British government refused entry.

For the Iroquois, the decision to stay home was easy, even though it meant the world championships would be held without the sport’s originators, who say they have played lacrosse for as long as 1,000 years and refer to it as “The Creator’s Game.”

The team’s players might be from the U.S. and Canada, but in this instance they were traveling as a nation under the Iroquois flag – not the Stars and Stripes or Maple Leaf – to represent their people in the same way they’ve done since their passports were first issued in 1977.

“Originally, it was just a lacrosse tournament we wanted to go and play in,” Nationals general manager Ansley Jemison said. “But all of a sudden, it became bigger. All of a sudden, we became a bigger hope for all Native peoples.”

Jemison was referring to the support – moral and monetary – the Iroquois received when the passport issue first came to light and the team spent days stuck in New York City going through diplomatic channels.

Film director James Cameron donated $50,000 to help pay for travel and meal expenses. Another $10,000 came from the Seneca tribe, one of the Iroquois nations.

“We felt it was very important that they stuck by their guns,” Seneca President Barry Snyder Sr. said. “Maybe there were alternatives. But the alternative was not to cave in to the pressure to use another passport. ... They make us very proud. For us, they won the trophy already.”

On paper, the Iroquois officially had an 0-3 record at the 30-team championship, forfeiting games 1-0 each against Spain, Hong Kong and Norway.

This was one of the strongest teams the Iroquois fielded in years – a solid mix of veteran and young talent.

“That’s the biggest disappointment, not being able to showcase our best team,” midfielder Brett Bucktooth said. “We feel we could’ve been very competitive and competed in any of the medal games.”

Still, he has no trouble with the decision to not play.

“No one wants to give up their identity. And we as a native people have been fighting for our rights for hundreds of years,” Bucktooth said. “Life’s resumed back to normal for me. I really didn’t get down about not playing because there’s not much I can do about it now.”

All might not be lost for the Iroquois this year. Jemison said that as a result of the publicity the team has been invited to play in several tournaments. One is in Bermuda, where organizers say passports should not be an issue.

Also on the table is a proposal for what would amount to a quasi-North American championship at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse this fall. The tournament would feature the Iroquois, the U.S., Canada and potentially three of the country’s top college teams.

Jemison recalled with a laugh what his players said when told about the tournament.

“They said, ‘Let’s fly England in and let’s play them,”’ he said.