The Iroquois Nationals are, once again, fighting to be included in international competition for the sport they invented.
More than 25,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the Iroquois Nationals be permitted to play in the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Ala., after the team learned it had not been invited to the multisport competition as the sport of lacrosse tries to be included in larger events such as the Olympics.
“We represent Indigenous communities around the world to some respect. Not just Haudenosaunee, not just First Nations,” said Leo Nolan, the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals. “Indigenous people around the world see this as a banner and we carry that responsibility.
“We are serious about making sure that banner is carried in a respectful, diplomatic way.”
World Lacrosse is pushing to be included in the Olympics and, to help build its case, has started participating in the World Games, a smaller multisport event.
Women’s lacrosse’s first appearance at the World Games was in Wroclaw, Poland, in 2017. Men’s lacrosse will be contested at the upcoming Games in Birmingham that were originally scheduled for 2021 but were delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Haudenosaunee – a group that includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora First Nations – are also known as the Iroquois or the Six Nations and are primarily located in New York, Ontario and Quebec.
The Haudenosaunee invented lacrosse centuries before Europeans arrived in North America and in recognition of that contribution they participate in international lacrosse as an independent team, the Iroquois Nationals.
Their men’s field team is ranked third in the world and their indoor team is second. The World Games’ tournament is an eight-team pool, but the Iroquois Nationals are not invited.
“We’re being very diplomatic about it, but at the same time we have to have a very aggressive voice,” Nolan said.
Aidan Fearn, a player on the Iroquois Nationals, started an online petition to demand the team’s inclusion in the World Games. Failing that, he called on the lacrosse teams of other countries to boycott the event.
World Lacrosse held a conference in Peterborough, Ont., in 2019 which representatives of the Iroquois Nationals attended. Nolan said that at that event no mention was made to his delegation about organizing or playing in the World Games in Birmingham.
Rex Lyons, another member of the Iroquois Nationals’ organizing committee, said he learned about his organization’s exclusion from the World Games when a convenor from another national lacrosse organization forwarded him an e-mail from World Lacrosse inviting the rival country to the Games.
“That was very sleight of hand, very deliberate,” said Lyons. “Things are starting to come to light now. As you can see, there’s a huge groundswell of support addressing this.”
World Lacrosse issued a statement on Wednesday explaining that it recognizes and appreciates the contributions of the Haudenosaunee people to the sport but that the decision is out of its control.
“For events conducted outside the auspices of World Lacrosse, such as international, multisport events, World Lacrosse does not determine the eligibility criteria,” read the statement. “That criteria is established by the governing body for those events – and, it is not uncommon for the eligibility criteria to be different.”
The World Games have not yet issued a statement on the Iroquois Nationals being excluded.
The statement from World Lacrosse points to Great Britain as an example. Although England, Scotland and Wales all compete independently at World Lacrosse events, they typically compete as a combined Team GB at international, multisport events and will again at the World Games in 2022.
However, Hong Kong and Taiwan will both compete at the World Games independently of China. Nolan also points out that Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory whose citizens use American passports, will also be competing at the World Games as a separate nation.
“When you see the medals that are won and Puerto Rico wins a couple they’re recognized as Puerto Rico, not as the United States,” Nolan said. “That’s the moral dilemma before a lot of the powers that be that are trying to make these decisions without our input, without consultation.”
The complex legal status of the Haudenosaunee has prevented them from participating in lacrosse events before.
Haudenosaunee passports are issued by tribal officials, with many people using them as their travel documentation as a show of pride in their First Nations heritage and to exert their own sovereignty. Travelling on a Haudenosaunee passport is especially common among players on the Iroquois Nationals’ teams.
“We’ve always had issues with our travel documents and it’s always been very challenging because we have territories in Canada and the U.S.,” Lyons said. “Our problems have always been from Canada and the U.S., getting home. Where we’re travelling to has always been welcoming.
“But since we don’t have a bar code we have to get a visa and go down that road.”
In 2010, although the United States cleared the Iroquois Nationals for travel on a one-time waiver at the request of then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the British government still refused the Iroquois Nationals entry for the World Field Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England.
However, the passports have never stopped the Iroquois Nationals from being invited to an event. Crossing international borders has, until this point, been the issue for the team. The Iroquois Nationals had no issues competing in Denver in 2014 at the next World Field Lacrosse Championships after being unable to compete in Manchester.
As the 2022 World Games are in the continental United States, the Iroquois Nationals are surprised at their exclusion.
“I think that would be a really good question to ask World Lacrosse, ask them what is the problem here?” Lyons said.
Support for the Iroquois Nationals has poured in from the larger lacrosse community.
U.S. Lacrosse issued a statement on Friday offering to assist in helping the Iroquois Nationals be included in the World Games. A statement from Lacrosse Canada is expected on Monday.
Nick Sakiewicz, the commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, has been outspoken in his support of the Iroquois Nationals.
“We have and will continue to dedicate time, effort and resources toward advancing the dialogue and finding a solution to create common ground,” Sakiewicz said in one of several tweets where he advocated for the inclusion of the Iroquois Nationals at the World Games.
Curtis Dickson, a three-time world champion with Canada who plays for the NLL’s Calgary Roughnecks, quote-tweeted the official statement from the Iroquois Nationals with the comment “Always in for a good old fashioned boycott.”