The Iroquois nationals are playing for more than wins and losses at the world field lacrosse championships – they're playing for their people's international standing.
The team will don the distinctive purple uniforms of the Iroquois nationals at the world field lacrosse championships for the first time in eight years after they were unable to compete in 2010. The Iroquois team missed out on the last competition in Manchester when the British government barred their entry to the United Kingdom.
"It's just pride. Our Creator was the one who made this sport and gave it to us," said Cody Jamieson, a Mohawk from Six Nations, Ont., who will play attack for the Iroquois at the international tournament in Denver. "It's pride to know that we are playing the sport that was given to us by our Creator."
The Iroquois – a group that includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora First Nations – are also known as the Haudenosaunee or the Six Nations and are primarily located in New York, Ontario and Quebec. The Iroquois invented lacrosse centuries before Europeans arrived in North America and participate as their own team in all international events.
Haudenosaunee passports are issued by tribal officials, with many Iroquois using them as their travel documentation as a show of pride in their First Nations heritage and to exert their own sovereignty. However, the passports are not officially recognized by any government.
In 2010, the Iroquois' participation in international lacrosse competition and the legality of their passports came in to conflict. Although the U.S. cleared the team for travel on a one-time waiver at the request of then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the British government still refused the Iroquois nationals entry.
"It was frustrating," said Brett Bucktooth a member of the 2010 team who will play attack for the Iroquois in Denver. "But more importantly, we stood up for what we believed in. Representing ourselves, who we are as a people. Not just for that day, for the week, but for future generations. There was a bigger purpose at hand."
Although the first Haudenosaunee passport was issued in 1923 and Switzerland accepted the passports of Iroquois delegates to the United Nations in 1977, governments have been less lenient after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In April and May of 2010 a group of four Mohawks travelled to Bolivia using Haudenosaunee passports to participate in an environmental conference with stops in Peru and El Salvador. The delegation had to spend several weeks in El Salvador before being allowed to return to Canada.
Joyce King, director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne's Justice Department, was denied re-entry into Canada in June of 2011 after visiting her sister in Hogansburg, N.Y.
Both Jamieson and Bucktooth said they would be carrying their Haudenosaunee passports to travel to Denver for the world field lacrosse championships.
"As players we're just trying to focus on performance during the tournament," said Bucktooth, from Onondaga Nation, N.Y. "Everything else is just up to the staff and we trust them and they worked diligently the last few years to make sure we don't have any issues.
"I completely have trust and faith in them."
Spokespeople from the American and Canadian governments told The Canadian Press that they have not changed their stance on Haudenosaunee passports since 2010 and that the documents are not recognized for lawful re-entry into either country.
Still, the United States will allow re-entry if American citizenship can be established through other means, while Canadian border services officers will allow admission without delay to any registered Indian. Further, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has begun working with several First Nations to create Enhanced Tribal Cards, a travel document that will be accepted at land and sea crossings.
Fifteen First Nations in the United States have signed memorandums of understanding to create ETCs, including the Seneca of New York, one of the six Iroquois nations. The Senecas' ETCs will be ready by the end of July.
The Iroquois will host the world indoor lacrosse championships in Onondaga Nation and Buffalo, N.Y., in September of 2015. However, Haudenosaunee passports could again become an issue in 2018 when the world field lacrosse championships return to Manchester.
Despite the controversy, Bucktooth dismisses any idea that the Iroquois will play with a chip on their shoulders in Denver.
"Personally, I try not to keep that in my mind because that kind of seems like a revenge factor and that's not why we play the game," said Bucktooth. "We're going out there to represent our country, our communities and the future generations. I, personally, am not keeping that in the back of my mind about 2010. I'm just trying to go out and do what we can for 2014."
Midfielder Jeff Shattler, from Edmonton, was part of the 2010 team and will play for the Iroquois in Denver even though he is Ojibwa.
"Team Iroquois is all nations," said Shattler. "Anyone of aboriginal descent, that's basically how you can get on to Team Iroquois, it's not just necessarily Iroquois."
Although he does not have a Haudenosaunee passport, Shattler stands by his teammates saying of the 2010 dispute.
"In the end, I think it was worth it. It's a great honour to put the sweater on and play for your nation," said Shattler. "I think it's a great opportunity to show your skills and to be a part of something as big as that. It's just a great opportunity. I'm very humble."
The Iroquois are expected to field a strong team, anchored by brothers Jeremy, Jerome, Lyle and Miles Thompson as well as cousin Ty Thompson.
Lyle and Miles Thompson were named the first-ever co-winners of the Tewaaraton Award this spring as the NCAA's top male lacrosse players. They both broke the record for most points in a single NCAA Division I season and were the first teammates in Division I history to have 100-point seasons, with Lyle racking up 128 points and Miles finishing with 119. Cousin Ty Thompson was their teammate on the Albany Great Danes.
"They're big parts of our team," said Jamieson. "Obviously the year that they've had and how strong of players they are.
"But we have a lot of strong players and we have enough depth that we don't need to rely on one or two guys."
Bucktooth agrees, saying the Thompsons bring an intangible element to the Iroquois nationals.
"I think one of the biggest things that they're bringing is chemistry," said Bucktooth. "They've already played with each other their entire lives."
Added Jamieson: "Nobody goes in expecting to lose. Hopefully we can shock the world and show everybody what kind of talent we have on our team."
The world field lacrosse championship has been historically dominated by the U.S., with the Americans taking nine of 11 titles in the quadrennial event since 1967, with Canada winning twice.
Canada's championship hopes were dealt a blow on July 4 when veteran John Grant Jr.'s application for a therapeutic use exemption for hormone treatment was rejected.
Grant, from Peterborough, Ont., requires prescription medication after a life-threatening staph infection and several concussions sustained through his professional lacrosse career. Jordan MacIntosh of Burlington, Ont., was named his replacement on the field, while Grant will join Canada's coaching staff.
Still, Canada has considerable depth. Calgary's Geoff Snider, a faceoff specialist who was named tournament MVP in 2006 when Canada last won the championship, returns to the team. Brodie Merril of Orangeville, Ont., will anchor Canada's defence and Zack Greer or Whitby, Ont., will be a key cog in the attack.
The world field lacrosse championships opening ceremony will be on Thursday, with Canada and the United States playing in the tournament's opening game that evening. The Iroquois will play their first game on Friday against England.
Round-robin play will continue July 15, with the top division's quarter-finals on July 16. The championship game will be held on July 19.