Flagstaff, Ariz. — An American Indian lacrosse team’s refusal to travel on passports not issued by the Iroquois confederacy goes to the heart of one of the most sensitive issues in Indian Country: sovereignty.
The rights of Native nations to govern themselves independently has long been recognized by federal treaties, but the extent of that recognition beyond U.S borders is under challenge in a post-Sept. 11 world.
After initially refusing to accept Iroquois-issued passports because the documents lack security features, the State Department gave the team a one-time waiver.
But leaders of the Iroquois Nationals squad announced Saturday that a last ditch attempt to persuade British officials to recognize their passports had failed, meaning the team wouldn’t play in its last scheduled game.
The team has maintained that traveling on anything other than an Iroquois-issued passport would be a strike against the players’ identity. But the British government wouldn’t budge in denying team members entry into England without U.S. or Canadian passports, keeping the Iroquois Nationals from competing at the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester in the sport their ancestors helped create.
“Any documents or IDs we put forth recognizing our members should also be recognized by the federal government and other governments,” argued Sanford Nabahe, a member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone, who — like many in the American Indian community — closely followed the Iroquois’ passport dispute. “The (federal) government has given us that autonomy.”
The Iroquois, whose members mostly live in New York, Ontario and Quebec, along with the Hopi and Western Shoshone are among the few American Indian nations in which members have had a form of their own passports.
The understanding that the Iroquois Confederacy’s lands are independent from the U.S. is taught early on in school, team member Gewas Schindler said Thursday as the team waited out the dispute in New York.
“You know that as a young person that you are sovereign, that you are not part of the United States,” he said. “We were the first people here.”
The National Congress of American Indians, based in Washington, D.C., has advocated on behalf of the lacrosse team, urging British officials to allow the members entry into England on their Iroquois-issued passports.
But some say the team’s adamant position has gone too far.
Michael Smith, a Navajo living on the Southwestern reservation, said it’s important to note that the Iroquois live in the U.S. on land he and his father fought to protect as Marines.
The Iroquois land isn’t recognized globally as a country, so the team’s efforts have been almost futile, he said.
“You’re flying overseas,” he said. “Get your U.S. passport and go kick some butt.”
In recent months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been working with tribes to develop tribal ID cards with enhanced security features. Those would be good for arrivals in the U.S. only by land or sea but couldn’t be used in lieu of a federal passport. Twenty-five tribes already have or are working toward formal agreements.