Lacrosse is not what tends to come to mind when Canada and sports are mentioned in the same breath, though it is the country’s national sport – in summer, at least. The sport has been around for centuries, predating even the European settlement of North America; it is believed the Native Americans invented the game of Lacrosse as early as the 12th century. Lacrosse is not only a sport, but originally was played as a spiritual endeavour, meant to give thanks and praises to the gods, a tradition which the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team follows to this day.
The original version of the game was played with possibly hundreds of players at a time on a field that could range up to a mile in length and would continue for days. Given the number of players, and the physicality lacrosse demands, it is with good reason that the Eastern Cherokee name for the sport roughly translates to “little war.” The game, however, has little to do with inspiring aggression. “We play this game to give enjoyment to the Creator,” clarified Ansley Jemison, general manager of the Iroquois Nationals. Before the game, the team gathers around their spiritual advisor who leads a traditional tobacco-burning rite, among other rituals that prepare the players to take the field.
The only time lacrosse has been a medal-earning sport at the Olympics was in 1904 and 1908 when Canada won the gold medal for men’s lacrosse both times. Lacrosse has been played for demonstration in a small number of subsequent summer games, and the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) continues to push the game’s presence in order to reinstate it at the Olympics. In order to do so, the sport will need a following on at least four continents with 75 competing countries. With only 23 countries currently in the FIL, it will be some time before we see the sport in the Olympics again. Until that time, the Lacrosse World Championship (LWC) will have to do. It is the biggest of the international lacrosse championships. The LWC is played every four years, just like the World Cup, and involved a record 29 competing countries in 2010. From its inception as a four-nation tournament until the present, the same teams have dominated: only the Iroquois, Canadian, American and Australian teams have ever placed in the top four.
The Iroquois Nationals team is the only Native American team authorized to play a sport internationally. The FIL accepted the Iroquois Confederacy as a full member nation in 1987, and they participated in their first competition in 1990. Since then, the Nationals then proven their mettle. “The game is absolutely still a big part of our culture,” said Jemison, when asked about the team’s importance today. “We are very proud to represent our nation.” As part of the agreement with the FIL, Native Americans from other tribes are also eligible to tryout and play for the Nationals.
The Nationals have been endorsed by Nike since 2008, and receive other funding from various sources including prominent Native American businesses. They are now a long way away from the donated equipment and airline tickets that saw them through the 1990 LWC. Under-funded at the outset, the Iroquois Nationals made a name for themselves and attracted investments and interest from around North America. Nowadays, their players are offered scholarships and recruited by the best university teams.
This summer, the LWC made news for reasons other than lacrosse. Upon travelling to Manchester for their first game against Germany, the Iroquois team was denied entry into England. The British government demanded that they carry either Canadian or American documents in order to cross the border, as their Iroquois Confederacy passports were not recognized. In the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened on behalf of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, obtaining a one-time waiver that allowed them to travel despite their passports not containing biometric chips and current security features. More outrage was levied against the British than the American authorities, though neither was willing to give the Iroquois Confederacy passport the same privileges as the Canadian and American ones. When asked about the decisions, team members were incensed by the idea of obtaining passports of nations to which they did not belong. Jemison quoted a member of the Nationals who said, “It’s one thing to lose a game to a team that’s better than you; it’s another to lose to a man behind a desk.”
It was in 1923 that the Iroquois Confederacy began issuing passports, and for many years carriers of this document were able to travel without much problem. With tightened security measures after 9/11, the E.U. member states no longer recognize Iroquois Confederacy passports as legal documents. While holders of this passport are free to enter Canada, neither the U.S. nor Canada endorse it as an official and valid travel document. The Bloc Québecois sided with the federal government on the issue, arguing that if the Iroquois passport was valid, then Quebec would also issue its own travel documents. As for the tournament, the Iroquois Nationals were never given the chance to compete and so did not place in the championship. Every match scheduled against the team was counted as a 1-0 forfeit victory for the other nation, which Jemison felt “was a big disappointment to all of us because we were highly ranked. We had all the tools to do well but suddenly it felt like we had one hand tied behind our backs.”
Despite recent difficulties with customs, the Nationals continue to cement a presence in international lacrosse. Just this month they travelled to Hawaii to compete at a tournament, which marked the first meeting of the indigenous Hawaiian players with the Iroquois. The team has previously travelled to other tournaments around the world to represent the Iroquois Confederacy, finding little to no trouble with regards to restricted movement. The 2014 LWC will be hosted in Denver and the Nationals should have no trouble getting there to represent the Iroquois.