It's been nearly a decade since the Iroquois Nationals have played in the World Lacrosse Championships.
Now, the only indigenous lacrosse team competing internationally as a sovereign nation, is in Denver aiming to compete for the gold medal.
"This is sort of like the redemption tour for our guys," said Marty Ward, goalie on the 27-man roster.
So far they've won three of their four games with a crucial contest against the USA coming Tuesday.
In 2010, the Iroquois Nationals made international headlines when they were forced to forfeit the Lacrosse World Championships in England. The group was travelling on their Iroquois nation's own passports.
The Nationals were offered expedited passports from both Canada and the United States. They declined them, reinforcing the recognition of their own passports and their sovereignty as a nation.
Ward said the reception they've received since arriving in Denver for the world championship has been fantastic.
"All the nations are excited to see us play. We were given eagle feathers from the youth nation and they had a good welcome reception."
Iroquois Nationals determined to get gold
Some of the best players in the world are assembled from a population of approximately 120,000 Iroquois across North America.
Iroquois Nationals standing
IN vs England: 15-4,
IN vs Japan: 24-9
IN vs Team Canada: 8-9
IN vs Australia 12-10
They play the USA Tuesday, July 15, which will determine where they are seeded in the playoffs.
Ward says this year's squad is one of the most talented yet. "I wake up every day and I'm grateful to play at this level."
The team is very respected in the lacrosse community for their natural playing style.
"The Iroquois Nationals are all on the same page, same line of the page, same word on the same line on the same page – it's just ridiculous," said British opponent Steven McDermott, who played against the U19 Nationals in 2012.
Many of these players have worked their entire lives to compete for the Iroquois nation. Midfielder, Brendan Bomberry is from Six Nations, Ontario. This will be his first time suiting up for the men's team.
"It's a dream come true to represent my people and show the world what we're about and how the game is played," Bomberry said.
The game has brought Bomberry many opportunities, "It has taken me places I never thought I'd be able to go and ultimately to get an education that I'll have for the rest my life." He'll be attending the University of Denver this fall.
Lacrosse as way of life, the creator's game
The Iroquois—also known as the Haudenosaunee, 'The People of the Longhouse'—comprises the Six Nations. The nations are Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora and are primarily located in eastern Ontario, Québec and New York State. They are considered the creators of Canada's national sport of lacrosse.
For many Haudenosaunee, the game is way of life. Ward has been playing since he was young enough to hold a lacrosse stick. Now he's head coach of lacrosse at Florida Southern College.
For many growing up on a reserve that can be plagued with social problems, lacrosse offers a way out. Warren Hill, 22, from Six Nations, Ontario, starting goalie on this year's roster, said "Lacrosse keeps a lot of people out of trouble and it unites the community when they go out to support us."
For these men the game is not always about winning. It's very much rooted in culture and tradition. It is also referred to as the Creator's Game, Hill said. "I've been raised to play with a clear mind and to respect my opponents. We play for the Creator's enjoyment because he gave it to us."
"It's a spiritual game and a medicine game first," said Ward. "When you pick up your stick it's got to be an extension of you."
And those traditional sticks became a point of contention in Sunday's game. In front of a sold-out crowd, Team Canada nosed the Nationals out by a goal scored with 19 seconds left in the game.
The Nationals use the traditional hickory sticks, which are heavier than the contemporary plastic and titanium sticks used by Team Canada. Following penalty calls against the Nationals during the game, the ESPN announcer contended that the wooden stick should be illegal in international competition, adding that it should never be used as a weapon.
The Iroquois Nationals tweeted:
Our Traditional Sticks are a valued and treasured piece of our Culture. Given at Birth and Buried with in Passing.— IROQUOIS NATIONALS (@iroquoisnatslax) July 14, 2014
A second tweet continued, "we are never taught to treat them as "a weapon. To possess a wooden stick is an honour and with that it is carried with respect."
Hill wasn't daunted by the team's loss against Canada Sunday night.
"I like the position we're in [...] Once you step on the field you only worry about your job and that's stopping the ball."
The Nationals are currently tied with Canada for second place on the Blue Division. They play USA on Tuesday leading up to the knockout rounds that will determine their standing in the semi-finals.