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Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team asks White House to honor sovereign passports

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; C01

President Obama is a known hoopster, but suddenly he's being asked to go to the hoop on behalf of a grounded lacrosse team.

Tuesday, with officials on both sides of the Atlantic prepared to weigh in, a letter was hand-delivered to the White House asking the president to allow the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team to travel to England and back on unofficial passports.

"We hope that does the trick," says Robert Clayton, a partner with the Jackson Lewis law firm who is working pro bono on behalf of the team. The letter was a plea for the team to be allowed waivers to travel to the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England.

The team has been caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare involving three juggernauts: the U.S. State Department, Britain and the Department of Homeland Security.

They were rebuffed from boarding a plane at JFK airport in New York on Tuesday, a flight that would have taken them to England for Thursday's start of the championships in a sport the Iroquois helped invent. But the team remained grounded in New York because of newly strict passport regulations.

"I'm so distressed over this," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D), whose district includes some of the Iroquois territory in Upstate New York, and who has been trying to resolve the standoff. But Slaughter, like the lacrosse team, has run into U.S. and British bureaucracy.

For years the players have been traveling on sovereign passports, issued by the Iroquois Confederacy, which is made up of half a dozen Indian nations. American officials have adopted a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" position regarding the sovereign passports out of respect to Native American heritage. But that broad interpretation of acceptable passports has been seriously crimped by a policy stemming from a 2004 law, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

When the Brits asked if the Americans recognized the sovereign passports in light of the new travel initiative, the Americans, according to a traveling member with the team, made it clear that they would follow the more formal passport requirements. That meant the players would be expected to use U.S. passports -- not their usual travel documents -- to gain entry back into the United States.

The State Department announced anew Tuesday that it was willing to expedite paperwork for the players to get official U.S. passports. But the players decried that position, intimating it would belittle their cultural pride and heritage to have their sovereign passports rejected.

"I went to bed Monday night feeling good about this," Slaughter said, only to awaken Tuesday and hear about the position of the U.S. State Department.

The issue came up at a State Department briefing Tuesday, where the official stance was reiterated. "The easiest way to accomplish what they want to accomplish is to get them a U.S. passport," State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said. "We've been willing to do that, you know, for a number of days, and we stand ready to do that today."

The Iroquois team raised $300,000 through raffles and donations to make the trip. It is ranked fourth in the world. And the Iroquois history with the sport is deep: The tribes have been playing it for hundreds of years.

"This all makes me feel very sick," said Peter Jemison, father of Ansley Jemison, general manager of the Iroquois Nationals. The elder Jemison was working the phones Tuesday with several politicians. He said he hoped that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would intervene. "For 30 years our people have been able to travel on that passport," he said.

Jemison said team officials began to sense last week that there was a problem, but couldn't get federal officials in Washington on the phone. "Summertime. People were going away for the weekend. My contacts only began returning my calls yesterday," he said.

Team members, coaches and officials trooped out to JFK on Tuesday, but they realized their chances of getting on a plane were slim. They went, however, because if they showed up they wouldn't be penalized for a change in flight costs. Nevertheless, they talked into some microphones at an impromptu news conference and tried to keep their spirits up.

"We're an indigenous people and we have been through quite a bit in the last 500 years," said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a legal adviser to the group who was at JFK with the team. "We're dealing with all this."

The team members were scheduled to practice Tuesday night and hoped that, through the night and morning, Washington officials could help resolve the matter.

"We'll train our boys tonight on Staten Island," said Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga nation, who is traveling with the team.

The chief is also a faith keeper.

"I think we'll make the trip," he continued. "We're making headway. But of course, you never know."

The lacrosse stick would now appear to sit between the fields that separate the White House and the State Department.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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