By THOMAS KAPLAN
Published: July 16, 2010
WESTBURY, N.Y. — The 23 players on the Iroquois national lacrosse team expected to spend this week vying for a world championship.
Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team members Drew Bucktooth and Aaron Printup wait in the lobby of their motel in Queens.
Instead, they spent Friday night divvying up their gear in the driveway outside a Hilton hotel here, having officially declared defeat in their weeklong dispute with the British government over whether they should be allowed to travel using their tribal passports.
“I felt it was coming, but I didn’t want to believe it until I actually heard it,” said Ron Cogan, 31, who played defense for the team.
The team, known as the Nationals, forfeited its first game Thursday night against England. Unless the team departed for the tournament by Friday evening, it would have had no choice but to forfeit its next game, scheduled for Saturday afternoon against Japan.
“You can’t go into a world competition and ask a team to tie one hand behind its back,” said Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation, one of the six nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy.
But the team was willing to try, at least until its second forfeit appeared inevitable. The team turned a guest room at the Comfort Inn near Kennedy Airport into a diplomatic command center of sorts, and team officials made a last-ditch effort to get the visas, traveling to the British consulate in Manhattan on Friday to make a final plea. The team dined at the Cheesecake Factory at the Mall at the Source here while awaiting word on their status Friday night.
“We’d rather be playing there than sitting here,” said the team’s captain, Gewas Schindler, 34, who plays attack. “It’s hard to talk about, really.”
Discussing their saga had been all the team had been able to do the past few days while it remained marooned, forbidden from flying to the tournament because British officials would not accept its tribal documents in lieu of American or Canadian passports because of security concerns. The Iroquois passports are partly handwritten and lack the holograms and other technological features that guard against forgeries.
The dispute has superseded lacrosse, prompting diplomatic tap-dancing abroad and reigniting in the United States a centuries-old debate over the sovereignty of American Indian nations. The Iroquois refused to accept United States passports, saying they did not want to travel to an international competition on what they consider to be a foreign nation’s passport.
“It’s a tough one,” Lyons said. “We’re dealing with new regulations that have come about since 9/11, and we understand that.”
The British government first objected to the team’s travel plans last week, when it said the Iroquois players would not be allowed to travel to the tournament in Manchester, England, unless the United States vouched for their tribal passports and guaranteed the team would be allowed to re-enter the country.
The United States refused to do so until Wednesday, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted the team a one-time waiver to travel without United States passports.
But later Wednesday, British officials informed the team it would not receive visas after all, dealing a blow to the team’s hopes and angering several lawmakers who had lobbied on the team’s behalf. Representative Dan Maffei, Democrat of New York, called the situation an “international embarrassment” and went so far as to question England’s ability to host the 2012 Olympics.
American diplomats discussed the case with their British counterparts on Wednesday and Thursday, but the State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley signaled Friday that the team was out of luck.
“From our standpoint, we’ve done what we can do,” Crowley told reporters in Washington. “It would appear to us at this point that the U.K. has made their final determination.”
The British government indicated that was the case. A spokeswoman for the United Kingdom Border Agency said British officials had not changed their position.
That broader issue of the validity of tribal passports — which experts in American Indian law say have been allowed for international travel for several decades, even if the letter of the law forbids them to be used as replacements for United States passports — remains unresolved.