FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — An American Indian lacrosse team's refusal to travel on passports not issued by the Iroquois confederacy goes to the heart of one of the most sensitive issues in Indian Country — sovereignty.
The rights of Native nations to govern themselves independently has long been recognized by federal treaties, but the extent of that recognition beyond U.S borders is under challenge in a post-Sept. 11 world.
After initially refusing to accept Iroquois-issued passports because the documents lack security features, the State Department gave the team a one-time waiver.
But leaders of the Iroquois Nationals squad announced Saturday that a last ditch attempt to persuade British officials to recognize their passports had failed, meaning the team wouldn't play in its last scheduled game.
The team has maintained that traveling on anything other than an Iroquois-issued passport would be a strike against the players' identity. But the British government wouldn't budge in denying team members entry into England without U.S. or Canadian passports, keeping the Iroquois Nationals from competing at the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester in the sport their ancestors helped create.
"Any documents or IDs we put forth recognizing our members should also be recognized by the federal government and other governments," argued Sanford Nabahe, a member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone, who — like many in the American Indian community — closely followed the Iroquois' passport dispute. "The (federal) government has given us that autonomy."
The Iroquois, whose members mostly live in New York, Ontario and Quebec, along with the Hopi and Western Shoshone are among the few American Indian nations in which members have had a form of their own passports.
The understanding that the Iroquois Confederacy's lands are independent from the U.S. is taught early on in school, team member Gewas Schindler said Thursday as the team waited out the dispute in New York.
"You know that as a young person that you are sovereign, that you are not part of the United States," he said. "We were the first people here."
The National Congress of American Indians, based in Washington, D.C., has advocated on behalf of the lacrosse team, urging British officials to allow the members entry into England on their Iroquois-issued passports.
But some say the team's adamant position has gone too far.
Michael Smith, a Navajo living on the Southwestern reservation, said it's important to note that the Iroquois live in the U.S. on land he and his father fought to protect as Marines.
The Iroquois land isn't recognized globally as a country, so the team's efforts have been almost futile, he said.
"You're flying overseas," he said. "Get your U.S. passport and go kick some butt."
Luanna Bear, a member of the Tulsa Creek Indian Community, part of the larger Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, said anyone who travels abroad should have the proper documents.
"A lot of tribes don't want to lose their identity, so that's what they're trying to keep," said Bear, 48. "But I believe you have to follow all laws."
Some Montana and Wyoming tribes have discussed issuing passports, but none has taken that step, said Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
"If you're acknowledged as a government-to-government entity, there should be an opportunity for them to issue their own passports and visas," Belcourt said.
Previously, tribal members who lived near the country's northern border faced no problems when traveling between Canada and the U.S., he said. Now, tribal members, along with other travelers seeking to cross the country's borders, must adhere to stricter security guidelines.
"With 9/11, everything changed," Belcourt said.
In recent months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been working with tribes to develop tribal ID cards with enhanced security features. Those would be good for arrivals in the U.S. only by land or sea but couldn't be used in lieu of a federal passport. Twenty-five tribes already have or are working toward formal agreements.
Robert Holden, deputy director at the National Congress of American Indians, said the Washington, D.C.-based group is hopeful the use of secured cards could be expanded to allow tribal members to travel abroad.
"It would have all the secure attributes that a passport would have, certainly a record of membership of that respective nation," Holden said. "So why would it not be accepted beyond the borders of the United States and accepted internationally?"
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also has urged the federal government to work with other countries to develop internationally recognized travel documents for American Indian nations.
Like the Iroquois' view of lacrosse, Hopi belief is that running is a gift from the creator, said Bucky Preston, a Hopi from the reservation village of Walpi in northeastern Arizona.
Preston said passports that have been issued by his tribe have represented what it means to be a sovereign people — being honest and sincere, and having faith and belief in the creator, along with concern for all creation.
"I can understand why they're standing strong on this," Preston said.
Among the Hopi, passports in the form of an eagle feather, sometimes tucked in a buckskin-covered pocketbook, have been issued in the past by elders to only a select few. To have one means you've been entrusted to carry messages from the Hopi people to other parts of the world.
Few have been issued and the man most well-known for having used one for decades to travel internationally died in 1999, said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.
Preston knows of only one man who still has a so-called Hopi passport. But Preston said he is not physically able to travel anymore, and Kuwanwisiwma doubts access to other countries would be granted given increased security measures.
"That's the reality of today's situation where the tribes continue to be dealt with on this relegated status and subject to the power of the United States government," Kuwanwisiwma said.