Iroquois Nationals: Taking One for the Team
The Iroquois Nationals -- the only Native team sanctioned to play in any sport internationally -- reflect on the 2010 passport dispute that kept them from competing that year on the world stage.
The Iroquois Nationals’ much-anticipated 2010 trip to the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships began with a send-off celebration at the Onondaga Reservation near Syracuse, New York. There, the team loaded into a small bus to begin the journey to New York City, where they were supposed to catch a flight to England and compete in the game the Creator had given the world through them.
“As we rolled down the road, some of the guys had rattles out and were singing. It was like we were on a longhouse on wheels,” says Ansley Jemison, who was the team’s general manager at the time. “We figured we would stay in New York for a couple of days, but England had some questions about the passports. They said our passports weren’t up to current international standards.”
And there they sat, 26 players, coaches and other members of the Iroquois Nationals delegation. Plane tickets were booked. Hotels were reserved in England. The wait in New York City was costing the Nationals thousands of dollars a day and robbing the players of valuable practice time as U.S., Canadian and British diplomats argued over the legitimacy of the team’s travel documents.
The team’s plight quickly drew international media attention and huge support from Native nations across North America. But in the end, the three countries were unable to reach agreement with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. After a week of hotel rooms, press conferences and diplomatic frustration, the Nationals stowed their bags and equipment back on the bus, left the city and returned to their communities without playing a game.
Jemison (Wolf Clan, Seneca Nation), who has also played for and coached the Iroquois Nationals over the years, says there was more at stake in the dispute than who would win the lacrosse world championship.
“Our guys didn’t want to be pawns in an international game—they wanted to play lacrosse. But when we look back on this years from now, we will see that we set some things in motion and laid the groundwork for our people by standing up for our sovereignty,” says Jemison, current assistant general manager for the Nationals. “Our people are believed to be the originators of this game, so there are people who believe that the 2010 games were diminished by us not being there. For us to be competitive in the game and to have a place among the other nations of the world is important for us as Iroquois and for all Native people. We need to stress Indian self-determination. If we don’t, we might just be relegated to the reservation, a forgotten people.”
In 2011, the Iroquois Nationals had a smoother time traveling to the world championships in Finland. And, for Jemison, an even sweeter victory was claimed at those games: “We beat the United States team for the first time in international play, which was a huge upset. And it felt really good.”
The team is now playing in the 2014 tournament, which started July 10 in Denver. On Saturday, they will vie for bronze in a game against Australia.
The Creator’s game continues to grow, both at home and abroad. That’s as it was meant to be, says Brett Bucktooth Sr. (Turtle Clan, Oneida Nation), a player on the 2010 Iroquois Nationals Team who now plays professional lacrosse for the Vancouver Stealth of the National Lacrosse League.
“The international tournaments are about competition and friendships. It’s also about growing the game of lacrosse. After all, this game is a gift and it is meant to be shared,” says Bucktooth. “The game of lacrosse is a gift given to us by our Creator …. My connection to the game is made every time I touch my lacrosse stick. Every time I speak or think about the game of lacrosse, there’s always that connection.”