November 22, 2015

POOR | Spotlighting Lacrosse and Sovereignty

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Human civilization has existed in the Ithaca area for over 13,000 years. Long before A. D. White, Ezra Cornell or any of the European colonizers, the lands surrounding Cayuga’s waters were settled by the Cayuga people and the larger Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Centuries of imperial conquest, genocide and systematic degradation of indigenous culture decimated the original populations of North America, resulting in the seizure of land for the new colonial entity. As professors, activists and historians have pointed out, Cornell University is founded upon these stolen lands.

While much of the discourse surrounding forcible land acquisition by the European colonizers situates conquests in the past, the vestiges of imperialism continue to unfold today. The struggle for recognition of Native American nations, rooted in early colonization and the American Revolution, persists all around us in the upstate area. Recent controversies in athletics have thrust a multinational issue regarding the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy into the mainstream media spotlight.

The indigenous people of North America invented the game Deyhontsigwa’ehs, widely known today as lacrosse. According to Haudenosaunee history, the Creator bestowed Deyhontsigwa’ehs upon the people, as a mode of honoring and entertaining their God. Chief Paul Waterman underscores the healing energy of the competition, citing the game’s potential for settling disputes and creating peace. Evidence exists that indigenous people played a version of lacrosse — sometimes with hundreds or thousands of simultaneous competitors — since at least the 12th century. By the mid 1800s, European settlers in Canada had copied and adapted the game, and by the 1900s, several leagues were established in the northeast of the United States, as well. Currently, lacrosse is considered one of the fastest growing sports, with teams all over the world and a powerful governing body, the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL), which holds five annual competitions for men’s and women’s teams in 23 member nations. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was accepted into the FIL as an independent nation competitor in 1987 with their men’s team, the Iroquois Nationals. As the only Native American team competing in the league, members of the Iroquois Nationals have expressed the honor and pride of playing their ancestral game for a global audience.

However, complications have emerged as the Iroquois Nationals attempt to travel to foreign locations for FIL championships. Legally considered a “domestic dependent nation,” the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has issued its own passports — distinct from United States or Canadian passports — since 1923; today, they serve as travel documents as well as prided indicators of Haudenosaunee autonomy. For the later decades of the 20th century, members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy traveled with their passports without significant contestation, but following 9/11, the heightened scrutiny on national borders has inspired many foreign countries to dispute the validity of the Haudenosaunee passports. The European Union considers them “fantasy passports” — documents issued by non-recognized minority groups that do not adequately attest to the authenticity of one’s identity.

The dispute over Haudenosaunee passports rose to the forefront of international media in 2010 when the Iroquois Nationals attempted to travel to the United Kingdom for the FIL world championships. The 23 players were stalled in a New York Hilton Hotel, waiting for confirmation from the United Kingdom that their passports would be received as acceptable travel documents for entrance into the country. The British government cited security concerns, and even when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a one-time U.S. voucher for the Haudenosaunee passports, the team was still denied entry. The State Department offered them expedited U.S. passports, but the players felt that accepting U.S. documents in lieu of documents from their true nation would exacerbate colonial-based efforts to undermine Haudenosaunee legitimacy and would be an affront to their heritage. Despite interventions from the United States State Department, New York congressional representatives and the National Congress of American Indians, the United Kingdom Border Agency refused to reconsider their position. The Iroquois Nationals forfeited the tournament, but as goalie Marty Ward professed, “We fought a battle that was bigger than lacrosse.” The lacrosse players reignited centuries-old debates over the sovereignty of indigenous people, and the team expressed hope that the international attention would incite efforts to undo the delegitimization of Native American nations.

Nonetheless, the United Kingdom rejected another Haudenosaunee lacrosse team this summer. The U19 women’s team qualified to compete in the FIL World Championship held in Edinburgh, Scotland, this past June, but players were denied entrance to the country because of the perceived insufficiency of their passports. Again, the team was offered expedited United States or Canadian passports, and again, the team refused, declaring that they will continue to resist forced submission to a colonial identity. The prohibition of the Haudenosaunee women holds particular emotional weight. Historically, women did not play Deyhontsigwa’ehs, due to the sanctity of the wooden sticks traditionally used in the game; the healing and spiritual energies of lacrosse have precluded women from even touching the sticks. However, after much debate following women’s request to join the game, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council sanctioned the formation of women’s teams towards the end of the 20th century. “Understanding the development of the sport and where it comes from while honoring our tradition and culture is part of what we do,” said Neal Powless, assistant director of Syracuse University’s Native Student Program. Many of the Haudenosaunee women lacrosse players still refuse to touch wooden sticks out of reverence for the spiritual tradition, but nevertheless, the players confront varying levels of acceptance of female participation in the game. Up-and-coming young player Alie Jimerson declares, “I respect this game and the gift that it gives. I’m Alie Jimerson, Cayuga Nation Bear Clan, and I play lacrosse.” Her words reflect the dynamism of traditions and highlight the evolving positions of women in athletics — in both the United States and in the Haudenosaunee land.

Yet in spite of the increasingly pliable terrain of women in sports, the Haudenosaunee women’s lacrosse team faces the compounding challenges of racial exclusion and transnational politics. The refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Haudenosaunee passports typifies the persisting and entangled politics of sovereignty, imperialism and white supremacy. As Sid Hill, the traditional leader, or Tadodaho, of the Onondaga Nation asserts, to travel on the Haudenosaunee passport is “to embrac[e] the full rights extended by the rules of international law and diplomacy.” Hill reminds us that Haudenosaunee territory was recognized officially as a sovereign nation since the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, but he proclaims, “too often, [Haudenosaunee] passports are denied by the very countries that took our land.” This ensnaring mess of racial hegemony, colonialism and national autonomy becomes further darkened by the biting injury of excluding the originators of the sport from competition.

This Thanksgiving, many of us will be fortunate enough to gather with family, friends and neighbors for food and festivities in the tradition of honoring a long past moment of peace between the colonizers and the indigenous North Americans. Let this Thanksgiving be a wake up call, a reminder of the violence, betrayal, paternalism, forced removal and cultural annihilation that we do not poignantly commemorate with turkey and a football game. Let this Thanksgiving beckon us to question the supremacy of the colonizers’ governments, to investigate the persistent undermining of Native sovereignty and to challenge the panoply of bureaucratic bullshit that prohibits the founders of lacrosse from playing their own game.

Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.