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Identity, federal policy clash for Iroquois lacrosse team

From Kristen Hamill, CNN
  • The U.S. government must decide if members of the Iroquois team can travel on their own passports
  • The players hope to compete in a lacrosse contest in England
  • The passports may not comply with new security measures
  • The team has traveled in the past on their own passports without issue

New York (CNN) -- The clock is ticking on a U.S. government decision to allow members of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team to travel outside the United States on their own Haudenosaunee Confederacy, or Iroquois, passports.

The team is hoping to compete in this week's World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England.

It was supposed to depart for England on Sunday with about 43 people, including family members.

But the British Consulate told the team Friday that it would not be given visas unless the U.S. State Department could confirm in a letter that the Nationals would be allowed back into the United States following the tournament's end, according to a press release issued by the team's board of directors.

The hold-up appears to come from new security measures applied to passports -- and whether the Iroquois-issued passports meet new rules applied to travel, said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

"The real issue is, does this passport properly provide the identification and does it meet the security standards that have been raised within our hemisphere and around the world since 2001?" he said Monday.

But it is still unclear why the team was denied the requested letter.

Crowley said he could not confirm whether or not the passports meet new travel requirements. He referred that question to the Department of Homeland Security.

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for that department, said the DHS was working to help resolve the matter with government agencies including the State Department, but would not comment further.

Crowley did acknowledge that his department has offered the Nationals assistance in obtaining U.S. passports.

"We are trying to help them get the appropriate travel documents so that they can travel to this tournament," he said.

But Dr. Percy Abrams, executive director of the Iroquois Nationals, said U.S. passports wouldn't even be accepted at the competition, where players have to produce a passport originating from the country they are representing -- the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Also, Abrams said, it's a matter of principle.

"We have our principles and with that sovereignty goes the idea that our country has been accepted. We've been travelling on this for years," Abrams said during a recent team practice at Wagner College in New York.

"I think it should have been explained well ahead of time or someone should have been advised that travel requirements had changed," Abrams said when asked about the update in travel security measures.

The people of the six-nation confederacy live in upstate New York. The Iroquois territory once covered most of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.

Monday afternoon, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson sent a letter to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the Nationals.

He asked that the matter be reviewed immediately and also noted that the passports have been used to travel outside of the United States since 1977 without problems.

"As a governor of a state with a significant Native American population, I know many tribes and pueblos will watch carefully how these young competitors are treated by the administration. As a signator of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, which includes the freedom to travel and return, I believe we have an obligation to assure these young men's rights are protected," Richardson wrote.

The last time the team travelled outside the country was in 2002, when the championship was held in Australia. The passports didn't pose a problem then, Abrams said. But Crowley acknowledged that that was before travel requirements changed.

If the matter doesn't get resolved, the team is aware it may not make it to this year's championship. Nationals General Manager Ansley Jemison said that would be a "worst case scenario for the game of lacrosse."

"These guys are also heroes to a lot of the young children that we have in our communities, and I think that would be a very negative message for the U.S. government to send to our people," Jemison said.

"We don't have a lot of heroes, and it's tough for us to have a lot of heroes... These are the 'Michael Jordans' of the native communities. These are the guys that we hold on the pedestal. These are the guys we look up to," Jemison said.

Despite the setback, Abrams, Jemison, and the team are confident they will make their scheduled 4 p.m. flight Tuesday.

Sid Smith, a defender for the team, said the players are continuing to work hard and stay focused.

"The boys have still got their spirits pretty high and I think the morale is pretty high right now," he said.