As It Happens·Q&A

Iroquois Nationals, barred from World Games, say their people gave 'gift' of lacrosse to the world

The Haudenosaunee gave lacrosse to the world, and now they're being prevented from playing the game on the world stage, says the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals team. 

Team represents the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, whose ancestors invented 'the Creator's Game'

The Iroquois Nationals were the bronze medal winners in 2018 Men’s Field Lacrosse World Championship. Teams that failed to outperform them have been invited to the World Games, while the Nationals have not. (Canadian Lacrosse Association)

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The Haudenosaunee gave lacrosse to the world, and now they're being prevented from playing the game on the world stage, says the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals team. 

The team, which represents the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in international field lacrosse, has been deemed ineligible for 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Ala., despite coming in third at the qualifying men's world championships. Several teams that ranked behind the Iroquois Nationals have been invited to compete in Alabama.

The Haudenosaunee — a confederacy of six First Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations — invented lacrosse and call it the Creator's Game.

The Iroquois Nationals are member in good standing of World Lacrosse. But it's the International World Games Association (IWGA) that determines eligibility for the Alabama tournament.

The IWGA has not responded to requests for comment. The organizing committee for the World Games in Birmingham told APTN that IWGA follows the criteria established by the International Olympics Committee, which states that "the expression country means an independent State recognized by the international community."

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy more than meets that definition, says Iroquois Nationals executive director Leo Nolan, a Mohawk from the Onondaga Nation. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

Take us through the moment you found out the Nationals were not invited to the World Games. What was your reaction?

We found out through a third party in late September, early October.

We immediately sent a letter to World Lacrosse asking about our lack of inclusion. And the response back was that we didn't meet what they believed were — and this is their belief — that we wouldn't meet that criteria as a nation state to be included in the Olympics.

All of this is a precursor of the Olympics, which, you know, we're right now on provisional status, lacrosse as a sport. And once the provisional status is lifted, then hopefully lacrosse will be reintroduced to the Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles.

The Iroquois Nationals travel with Haudenosaunee passports — a fact that has led to travel delays in previous competitions. (Submitted by Candace Maracle)

How does the team rank worldwide?

In the men's ... we are third in the world. And we've won the bronze medal the last two competitions, in 2014 in Denver and then in 2018 in Israel.

In the indoor game, we've won a silver every year it's been competed since 2003.

So what do you think this is about then, Mr. Nolan?

I'm not one to point fingers or to speak ill of anyone. I mean, I don't think that's the way we should operate in this time and age.

I think part of it could be a lack of appreciation, understanding and just basic knowledge about who we are as a nation state, so to speak. 

There's always speculation about, you know, racism, and I think that it's wrong for us to even push that kind of thing. I don't have strong evidence of that aspect of it, and I don't think that that's the way we want to go forward with this. So I think it's more a lack of ... understanding our status.

We are the originators of the game. It came to us, it was given to us by the Creator as a medicine game to help heal us. And then it transcended into what we see today as a lacrosse game.- Leo Nola, executive dictor of the Iroquois Nationals

You qualified, but it's a question of sovereignty?

Yes, I believe it is a question of sovereignty. 

We have treaties with the Dutch, the French, the English, with the United States. 

Beside the treaties, you know, we have our passports, which we've utilized for four international [competitions]. There have been times where we've been challenged, you know, about these passports because the officials looking at our passports may not recognize them, but that's something we established.

Clearly, our international efforts have been longstanding, not just on lacrosse, but just in our relationship with governments.

[In] the United States, we have a government-to-government relationship, and it's unique.

Can you tell me what it means to you personally and to the players to compete on the world stage in lacrosse as a Haudenosaunee team?

It really enhances our standing internationally and I think, domestically, our sovereignty. It really shows who we are. We have our own territories ... First Nation communities that, as you know, are sovereign territory.

So it means a lot to us to represent a Six Nations Confederacy for our players. I've talked to many of our players and, you know, one of the great things about our community and our young folks is they all ... aspire to be Iroquois Nationals lacrosse players, both men and women, boys and girls.

So I think it means a lot to our Haudenosaunee and to all the Indigenous communities around the world. We get a lot of inquiries from a lot of different places about our ability to be in the game and how much it means to them to showcase a sovereign nation to really represent our interests.

And what is it about lacrosse specifically that is so special?

We are the originators of the game. It came to us. It was given to us by the Creator as a medicine game to help heal us. And then it transcended into what we see today as a lacrosse game. 

And part of that responsibility the Creator gave to us was to share this with others, which, as you know, now 66 countries play lacrosse. It was a gift that we gave to the rest of the world. So I think it means a lot for us to be able to continue that.

And we have probably, I believe, the world's best player in lacrosse right now.

The World Games are in 2022. That gives you some time. What do you do now? What's next?

We are working very closely with the World Games organizing committee in Birmingham, Ala.

I don't want to speak for them, but they obviously have a lot of concern about whether we're in or not. I think, just based on a few conversations, I think they see the value of us being there.

Why would you exclude some of the best players in the world [from] a world competition?

So you're hopeful.

Always optimistic. You know, you've got to take that kind of optimistic turn and help people understand better what this is about and how it's going to benefit all of us. All of us, you know, world lacrosse, in general, I think it will benefit.

The more and more we can get more countries to come in and play this wonderful game, I think the better off we're all going to be.

So, yes, we are very optimistic.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Indigenous. Interview produced by Mehek Mazhar.

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