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Haudenosaunee Sovereignty, Olympics & Lacrosse

Haudenosaunee sovereignty is a long-standing issue, and it is currently jumping back into the mainstream news because of the WILC 2015.

Haudenosaunee sovereignty is a long-standing issue. It jumped back into the mainstream news with the WILC, and seeing as this was the first-ever FIL event hosted by the Haudenosaunee, the issues of Native rights, Haudenusaunee sovereignty, and lacrosse’s eventual path to the Olympics all came to the fore of conversation once again. With the Olympics in Rio in 2016, it’s as good a time as any to have this discussion.

Editor’s Note: The below story was originally published on September 17th, 2015. It is editorial content representing the views of the author.

While some may shake their heads, and ask that politics be left to the side when it comes to international sporting events such as the World Championships or Olympics, I do think it’s important to realize how political the sports world has been in the past. We also need to recognize that it will continue to be so in the future, before simply washing our hands of the idea, and moving on completely.

You can look back to black American athletes raising gloved fists in support of the Civil Rights Movement while the US national anthem played. You may also remember that 62 countries (including the USA) boycotted the entire 1980 Olympic Games for political reasons. The USSR and others did the same thing in 1984 as “payback”. Or maybe you remember when a number of Israeli athletes were held hostage and then executed at the Munich Olympics. I know I’ll never forget that sickening story of twisted political ideology.

While the above examples may have been controversial, divisive, or downright brutal, there have also been political moments of supreme healing, and there is no finer example than when Cathy Freeman celebrated her gold medal in Sydney by running around the track with both Australian and Aboriginal flags. Or how about Jesse Owens going to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and winning four gold medals, thereby crushing Hitler’s fabrication of Aryan domination in the Nazi’s own backyard?

Politics in sport, for better or for worse, can not be ignored.

In the case of Haudenosaunee sovereignty, expect the discussion of lacrosse in the Olympic Games to figure in heavily.

Why Should WE Care About Haudenosaunee Sovereignty?

Let’s face it; we live in a somewhat selfish world. There is plenty of good out there, sure, but a majority of people do seem to be primarily motivated by self interest, so if you’re not Haudenosaunee, or don’t really care about nations being able to self-determine, why should this matter to you at all?

Well, if you’re a lacrosse player, the answer is simple, even if it’s a bit selfish: you want to see the Iroquois Nationals play in the Olympics. You really do. It’s their game, and their gift to the rest of the world. Should the world then play the sport in the Olympics, but leave the Iroquois on the outside looking in? And should we as fans give up the right to see one of the most exciting AND meaningful teams in the entire world play?

Maybe I’m making a big assumption here, but for me at least, international lacrosse loses a LOT of its luster if the Iroquois are not playing their own game. If you were out in Denver, you remember their play on the field. They were the third best team on the planet, they played a different style from ANYONE else, and the team was one of the biggest draws BY FAR. Nike, a HUGE sporting conglomerate, was their main sponsor. There were numerous documentaries made about them. People lined up hundreds deep for autographs. The Iroquois were THE stars of the games… and if they don’t achieve recognized sovereign status, we will simply NEVER see that during an Olympic competition. NEVER. Think about that for a minute.

For me, this takes all of the opportunity that the Olympics could offer our sport, and makes it a non-starter. International Lacrosse without the Iroquois?

Thanks, but no thanks.

Honestly, I’d much rather just watch the FIL World Championships, because then at least you’d have all Top 3 teams in the world competing, and our sport would be able to honor its long roots.

So why can’t we just make an exception for the Olympics and have the Iroquois play, just like they do in the FILs?

Quite simply, the Olympics don’t work that way.

Haudenosaunee sovereignty comes into play intrinsically for the Olympics. In order to participate in the Olympics, a team or individual must be nominated by an NOC, or National Olympic Committee. Prior to 1996, the Iroquois probably could have formed an NOC, but the rules were then changed by the International Olympic Committee, and moving forward, only countries recognized the international community can have an official NOC.

In this case, the “international community” pretty much means the United Nations, and recognition means acceptance by that political body. So to even play in the games is outright about politics on some basic level. Those saying we should “leave politics out of sport” don’t seem to realize how political sport already is.

So before the Haudenosaunee can send a team, they need an NOC. Before they can get an NOC, they need to be recognized by the UN as a sovereign nation. Before the UN will recognize the Haudenosaunee as a sovereign nation, the US and Canada will likely have to get on board. The US holds an extremely powerful position in the UN, and other countries will not recognize the Haudenosaunee if the US doesn’t want them to. Money talks in the UN! Aren’t politics fun?

But this is where we, the lacrosse community, can figure in to the picture. US Lacrosse has over 450,000 members. And that is power. To put it in perspective, the entire Iroquois Nation is comprised of around 125,00 registered members, with about 80,000 living on the US side of the US-Canadian border. And that’s not lacrosse members, that’s NATION members.

US Lacrosse is THREE times bigger than the entire Haudeonsaunee nation. So if something is going to change, WE have to make the difference here. WE can put pressure on our representatives to deal with this issue, and to have serious talks with the Haudenosaunee about supporting their quest for sovereign status. WE can make it happen, but only if we choose to.

After all of the above, you may still need some convincing. So here it is, my final editorial push.

The Iroquois had been living in the same place, in and around modern upstate New York, for thousands of years (perhaps longer). This was well before the United States was ever formed. The Iroquois were here before the initial European settlers came. And they have been here ever since. The Iroquois Confederacy was first recognized by the British in 1722, 54 years before the US Colonies declared independence. The Confederacy may date as far back as 1570.

In 1794, the US and the Confederacy signed one of many future treaties recognizing each other, and creating borders. While the US has consistently re-negotiated those terms and borders, the Iroquois have never disappeared, and still retain some of their original sovereign rights and the ability to self-govern. This is not opinion. Those ratified treaties exist.

Do the Haudenosaunee have a lot of work to do during this process? Surely, they do, and much of the push will need to come from them. They need to campaign more, update their passport technology, and take a number of other steps politically. To a certain extent though, they can only do so much. How can 150,000 sovereign nation members change US policy when they don’t even view themselves as US citizens much of the time? Without outside help, prospects are somewhat bleak.

The Confederacy predates the modern Olympics by over 300 years. It predates the USA by almost 200. It predates the UN by almost 400 years. Lacrosse has been a part of the Haudenosaunee culture the entire way.

If you look at this from a US perspective, there has been a heavy push and a slow creep towards absorbing the Iroquois and other Native nations in the US over the centuries. However, if you look at the situation from the Iroquois’ perspective, they see themselves as a continually functioning, constantly marginalized nation that has officially been around for over 500 years. To not be recognized as a sovereign state by all of these much younger entities would be immensely frustrating, to say the very least.

Perhaps you are now thinking back to Cathy Freeman, and asking why the Iroquois can’t just play for the US or Canada, depending on where they live, and represent their nation that way. If they win a medal, they can carry and American or Canadian flag as well as a Iroquois flag, much like Freeman did.

That’s not going to happen here.

Some may think that’s sad.

I actually find it inspiring.

The Iroquois know that sport is political, and that it can be a useful tool when it comes to exposure and recognition. They refuse to travel on US or Canadian passports, and will only play for their nation. They have drawn a firm line in the sand here, as is their right, and said “we are still here.” So whether it’s field or box, if we want to see lacrosse done right in the Olympics, there is really only one choice.

This all combines to mean that the Iroquois believe in their right to Haudeonsaunee sovereignty, and know the game will suffer in their absence. I support their cause, and international lacrosse just won’t be the same without the Iroquois… so even if it’s for somewhat selfish reasons, meaning you just want to see the best the lacrosse world has to offer, you had better support them too.

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