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Iroquois setting sights on Olympics as lacrosse pushes closer to being a recognized sport

Scott McCall

The last time lacrosse was played as an official Olympic sport was 1908. That could change, given a three-year provisional acceptance into the International Olympic Committee for the Federation of International Lacrosse. It gives the sport’s governing body added resources and the option to apply for full-sport status in the future. But as lacrosse continues on track to achieve its Olympic dreams, what about those of the Native American athletes of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team?

“Lacrosse is interwoven, and so it has great spiritual significance to our people and to the Creator,” said LeRoy “Jock” Hill, founder and current board member of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team.

The team is made up of Native American players hailing from the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. The Nationals are the only indigenous team to compete as a sovereign nation in international competition, and they’ve been doing it at the Federation’s World Lacrosse Championships since 1990. It’s their cultural game, and Hill is adamant in their Olympic inclusion.

“We view ourselves as a nation, we’ve conducted ourselves as a nation,” said Hill. “We have international treaties and relationships with Canada and the United States. We’ve never abandoned that, and nor do we intend to.”

Federation Vice President Steve Stenersen explained that individual nations need their own recognized national Olympic committee to compete in the Olympics.

“At the current time Scotland, Wales, and the Iroquois for example are not recognized as national Olympic committees by the IOC,” said Stenersen. “So their athletes would be eligible to compete in the country in which they hold a valid passport.”

Stenersen’s “valid passport” comment offers a flashback to 2010, when the Iroquois National team was stranded in New York City and unable to board their flight to the Federation’s World Championship tournament in Manchester, England. Despite having passports issued by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, U.S. State Department officials (in conjuction with U.K. counterparts) told the team they’d have to use U.S. or Canadian passports to travel. The team chose instead to stand their ground, and were forced to forfeit their games in the tournament. Hill views their ultimatum then, and the current rule Stenersen refers to, as an insult.

“So that sort of defeats the purpose of our national team competing in the world stage,” Hill said. “You’re not asking the Israelis to travel under somebody else, maybe someone that’s an archrival of theirs, under their travel documents. I mean it’s kind of an insult of what they asked of us.”

Stenersen is taking a more optimistic tone.

He said the Iroquois would have to make an application for full inclusion to the Olympic Committee, should lacrosse get full recognition as an Olympic sport – an inclusion he sees as an important one.

“The Iroquois Nationals participation is important to our organization,” Stenersen said. “And we would certainly work to advocate for that with respect to the IOC, if and once the FIL is included in the Olympic Games.”

Stenersen also said the Nationals will continue to be welcomed as a full-nation member at its World Lacrosse Championship tournament which takes place every four years. The last one, played in Israel earlier in 2018, saw the Iroquois take bronze, Canada silver, and the United States take home gold. The tournament saw a record high 46 national teams take the field – a far cry from the two national teams that battled for the last Olympic gold medal in lacrosse in 1908.

Many in the international community are eyeing the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles for the possible return of lacrosse. With the world watching, the Iroquois aim to be there.

Ryan Zunner joined WBFO in the summer of 2018 as an intern, before working his way up to reporter the following summer.