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Iroquois lacrosse team denied visas by U.K.

The British government has refused to allow an Iroquois lacrosse team to travel to England using passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.

The British government has refused to allow an Iroquois lacrosse team to travel to England using passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy.

The decision Wednesday means the team will miss a world championship lacrosse competition in Manchester.

Iroquois Nationals member Brett Bucktooth visits Times Square in New York on Monday. ((Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press))
A British Consulate spokeswoman says the team would be able to travel only with documents the United Kingdom considers valid.

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Onondaga Nation who works with the team, says it was told by British officials that members would have to use U.S. or Canadian passports to travel to Britain.

The decision was announced hours after the U.S. cleared the team for travel on a one-time waiver at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The team needed to get on a Wednesday flight to make a Thursday evening game.

The Iroquois helped invent lacrosse and, in a rare example of international recognition of American Indian sovereignty, participate at every tournament as a separate nation.

The 23 players have passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy, a group of six Indian nations overseeing land that stretches from upstate New York into Ontario.

The U.S. government had said it would only let players back into the country if they have U.S. passports, a team official said. The British government, meanwhile, wouldn't give the players visas if they could not guarantee they'd be allowed to go home..

New travel rules

Iroquois team members born within U.S. borders have been offered U.S. passports, but the players refuse to carry them because they see the  government-issued documents as an attack on their identity, Frichner said earlier this week.

"It's about sovereignty, citizenship and self-identification," said Frichner, who also is the North American regional representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The Iroquois have used their own passports in the past, but U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the new dispute can be traced to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect last year. The new rules require, among other things, that Americans carry passports or high-tech documents to cross the country's borders.

"Since they last travelled on their own passports, the requirements in terms of the kind of documents that are necessary to facilitate travel within and outside the hemisphere have changed," Crowley said. "We are trying to help them get the appropriate travel documents so they can travel to this tournament."

Tribes' efforts to meet the new security requirements have been ongoing.

A group of American Indian leaders requested funding from the Department of Homeland Security in 2009 to develop cards that would comply with the new rules, according to an agency document. Idaho's Kootenai tribe and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agreed last year to develop the first enhanced tribal card acceptable under the new guidelines.

'That's our identity'

One Iroquois player, Brett Bucktooth, said he would rather miss the tournament than travel under a U.S. passport.

"That's the people we are, and that's our identity," he said.

Bucktooth, 27, also spoke of his deep cultural and personal connection with lacrosse — first played by Iroquois and Huron about 1,000 years ago.

"My father put a wooden lacrosse stick into my crib when I was a baby, and now that I have a son, I put a lacrosse stick into his crib," he said. "In our culture, we all start playing lacrosse young."

Bucktooth and other Iroquois see lacrosse as a gift to the tribes from their creator. Lacrosse was played by American Indians as a preparation for war and "to resolve conflicts, heal the sick, and develop strong, virile men," according to US Lacrosse, the American governing body of the sport.

Today, the Iroquois Nationals, as the team is called,  is ranked No. 4 by the Federation of International Lacrosse and represents the Haudenosaunee – an Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Cayuga and Onondaga nations. About 90,000 Haudenosaunee, or "the people of the longhouse," live today in New York, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, as well as Quebec and Ontario, said Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons.

The team has been travelling on Iroquois passports for the past 20 years, and Iroquois passport holders have been using them to go abroad since 1977, said Denise Waterman, a member of the team's board of directors. Within the last year, colleagues used their Iroquois passports to travel to Japan and Sweden without any problems, she said.

In the past, U.S. immigration officials accepted the Iroquois passports when they obtained visas — including for trips to Britain in 1985 and 1994, and as recently as 2002 to Australia.

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