By Matt Dasilva | FUEL | Friday, July 24, 2020 | Reprinted from USLacrosse Magazine
Photo above: Photo By Oded Karni
The Iroquois Nationals would not need passports to travel to Birmingham, Alabama. But the question of Haudenosaunee sovereignty — and the governing bodies that do or do not recognize it — has resurfaced once more with the omission of the team from the lacrosse competition at The World Games in 2022.
US Lacrosse issued a statement Friday in response to a growing movement on social media, including a petition for the inclusion of the Iroquois Nationals that had more than 15,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon and calls by some for the U.S. and Canada to boycott The World Games unless the Iroquois can play.
The sport’s national governing body expressed support for the participation of the Iroquois in all international lacrosse competitions.
“The Iroquois Nationals and the Haudenosaunee people they represent are the very essence of lacrosse. As the originators of the game who continue to share the gift of lacrosse with the world, they deserve our collective admiration, respect and steadfast support,” US Lacrosse said in the statement. “The exclusion of the Iroquois Nationals from international competition is not merely a loss for the Haudenosaunee; it is a loss for all nations, communities and individuals who have embraced their game and helped to make lacrosse into what it is today.”
The World Games, first held in 1981, are an international multi-sport event meant for sports, or disciplines or events within a sport, that are not contested in the Olympic Games. The quadrennial event is governed by the International World Games Association, which added World Lacrosse as a member in 2013 and hosted a women’s lacrosse competition in 2017 in Wroclaw, Poland. The Haudenosaunee women’s team did not compete then.
Neither the Iroquois men nor the Haudenosaunee women were among the 16 teams chosen in December to participate in the next iteration of The World Games, which were moved from 2021 to 2022 to avoid conflicting with the Olympic Games in Tokyo. (The Haudenosaunee’s 12th-place finish at the 2017 women’s world championship would have kept them from making it into the eight-team field anyway.)
The addition of lacrosse to The World Games was seen as a major milestone in the sport’s own Olympic ambition. In November 2018, World Lacrosse, the sport’s international governing body, earned provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee. Advocates for returning lacrosse to the Olympic program for the first time since 1908 have identified the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a viable opportunity.
World Lacrosse recognizes the Haudenosaunee Confederacy as one of its 65 member nations but does not determine the eligibility criteria for The World Games (IWGA) or the Olympic Games (IOC). The IOC, for example, only recognizes countries that have national Olympic committees and are identified as sovereign states by the United Nations.
Despite the Haudenosaunee’s commitment to self-government and treaties established with the United States and Canada, the confederacy is not a UN member state. Nor are England, Scotland and Wales, countries that compete independently in lacrosse but whose Olympic athletes participate under the Team GB (Great Britain) umbrella.
World Lacrosse said in a statement Wednesday that it “fully respects the contributions and status of the Iroquois Nationals within international lacrosse” and that the Haudenosaunee “gave the world The Creator’s Game.” Beyond the scope of its own events, however, its influence is limited.
Inside Lacrosse recently recirculated an article from its March edition about the nationhood and sovereignty conflicts inherent to the Olympic dream as it relates to the people who gave lacrosse to the world. Since then, some of the sport’s most visible figures — including Premier Lacrosse League co-founder Paul Rabil, billionaire Joe Tsai and Hall of Fame coach Dom Starsia — have shown solidarity with the Iroquois players who have expressed their dismay on social media.
This is not the first time the issue of Haudenosaunee sovereignty has made waves in the lacrosse community. In 2010, the Iroquois Nationals did not participate in the then-Federation of International Lacrosse world championship in Manchester, England, because the United Kingdom would not allow entry to athletes, coaches and delegates who used Haudenosaunee Confederacy-issued passports. The same concern nearly precluded the Iroquois from competing in the 2018 world championship in Netanya, Israel.
The discussion transcends lacrosse and touches on a centuries-old debate over the independence of American Indian nations. Chesapeake Bayhawks star Lyle Thompson, the reigning Major League Lacrosse MVP and a member of the Onondaga Nation (one of six nations straddling New York and Ontario that comprise the Haudenosaunee Confederacy), posted an emotional thread of comments Thursday on Twitter that has thousands of retweets, comments and likes.
“As native people, we’ll continue to run this everlasting track of hurdles,” Thompson tweeted. “It’s timeless and exhausting but [we] must continue to fight.”
“I look forward to the day our children can climb this ladder and reach new heights and go to the Olympics to do one of the many things we do best,” he added. “Play.”
The Iroquois Nationals Board also issued a statement Friday that was signed by executive director Leo Nolan.
“We are grateful to have the support of lacrosse players and fans, including our Haudenosaunee people, people in other indigenous nations and non-native people who love The Creator’s Game and understand its importance to our culture and to the world. Our players, supporters and staff are working tirelessly towards realizing our dream to play our game on the world’s biggest stage,” the statement said. “With the next World Games taking place on land where our ancestors once walked and played, it is more important than ever to honor and celebrate the roots of lacrosse.”
Both the Iroquois men and Haudenosaunee women have experienced success competing internationally in lacrosse. The men have won the bronze medal in the last two field lacrosse world championships and the silver medal in all five world indoor lacrosse championships dating back to 2003. The women have finished as high as seventh place (in 2007) and took first at the Pan-American Lacrosse Association world qualifiers in November.
Lacrosse’s case for inclusion in the Olympics in 2028 would benefit greatly from a strong showing when The World Games come to Birmingham in 2022. While the US Lacrosse strategic plan includes collaboration with World Lacrosse to position lacrosse as a medal sport in the 2028 Olympic Games, the national governing body stated Friday that it “stands in solidarity with the Iroquois Nationals” and offered “to assist them and international governing bodies of sport to forge pathways that enable their inclusion.”
“We encourage the lacrosse community to come together in support of our Haudenosaunee allies,” the statement concluded.