Iroquois lacrosse team stuck due to passports row

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A team of Iroquois Indian lacrosse players meant to compete in England this week was instead stuck Tuesday in New York fighting a bigger battle -- for the right to use their own native passports.

The Iroquois Nationals had been booked to leave for Manchester on Sunday to practice ahead of the opening game against England in the world championship of a sport that Native Americans invented centuries ago.

However, the British consulate in New York last week told the team, which is drawn from the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, that they won't be allowed to Britain unless the US State Department guarantees it will let them back into the United States.

The State Department says only full US passports, not the Haudenosaunee confederacy document, which is emblazoned with animal symbols, will be honored.

Furious at what they see as an infringement of tribal sovereignty, the team stood its ground and rebooked for Tuesday in a last ditch hope of still making it to the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship.

With only hours to go before the Delta flight out of JFK Airport, Iroquois representatives and their backers in Washington were continuing to negotiate.

Denise Waterman, from the team's board of directors, pointed out that the Iroquois had used their own passports for two decades when traveling to lacrosse games and that they are accepted in tournaments as a full-fledged nation -- not as part of the United States.

"We would not be interested in a US or Canadian passport because the US and Canadians passports are those of our competitors," Waterman told AFP.

Waterman said the ancient sport is the Iroquois' "cultural, spiritual game" and that the passport row is part of a broader struggle by remnants of the continent's indigenous tribes to assert their rights.

"It's just one example. There are so many things that Native American people in North America between Canada and the United States have to hurdle," she said. "We have not given up. We will persevere."

Ansley Jemison, the Nationals' general manager, told AFP there was still hope.

"We've got some political allies who've made some phone calls to the State Department and Homeland Security," Jemison said. "So now we're waiting. If we hear, then we're on a bus to the airport."

So far, the State Department has refused to bend, although offering to get the team US passports in time for the trip.

"We are standing by to help the team get its passports on an expedited basis," spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters in Washington.

Louise Slaughter, a Congressional representative from upstate New York, said she hoped the State Department would compromise by issuing letters that would satisfy the British requirements.

"This same core group of players, representing the six Indian nations that include upstate New York and Canada, have traveled internationally for more than 20 years without interruption to participate in this tournament," Slaughter said.

"I definitely don't want to see this wonderful tradition end simply because of a paperwork holdup."

Even if the Iroquois were allowed to fly Tuesday, the delay meant they'd face a grueling schedule ahead of their planned match on Thursday.

"Now we're looking to fly to Amsterdam, then London, arriving sometime Wednesday afternoon," Jemison said. "From there, we'd have a bus to Manchester, so quite a bit of traveling."

© 2010 AFP

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