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Iroquois Nationals Ready for World Lacrosse Championships in Finland

The 2012 Under 19 Men’s World Lacrosse Championships will be held in Europe for the first time this year, and the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team will be there to compete.

The Iroquois Nationals Under-19 team members, some of them as young as 16, will travel to the city of Turku, Finland, in early in July to play in the international lacrosse championships, which will take place from July 12-21.

The Iroquois Nationals is the only indigenous sports team in the world that is playing in international competitions. That’s not surprising considering that lacrosse is central to the social, spiritual and cultural heritage of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, which includes the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and Tuscaroras. While each nation is a separate entity, they share a collective identity as Haudenosaunee and travel on Haudenosaunee passports, rather than individual nation passports. Players from all six nations will be on the team competing in Finland.

This year’s team members are: Frank Brown, Hank Delisle, Orris Edwards, Seth Oakes, Ky Tarbell, Anthony Patterson, Johnny Powless, Quinn Powless, Randy Staats, Brendan Bomberry, Jake Bomberry, Wenster Green, Zach Miller, Lyle Thompson, Chris George, Kyle Isaacs, Jesse Jimerson, Tyler LaFonte, Korin Sunday, Oakley Thomas, Trey Adams, Warren Hill, Vaughn Harris, Dalston Day, and Tyson Bomberry.

The opening ceremonies for the world championship games held under the auspices of the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) will be held on July 12 with the series culminating in a Gold Medal game on July 21.

“We have a good crack at the gold,” said Oren Lyons, Onondaga Faithkeeper, chairman of the team’s board of directors, and a former All-American Lacrosse Goalie. Excitement at the upcoming trip to Finland and the competition games is running high among the players, Lyons said. “This team is strong, fast and skilled. Several of our players have been featured in lacrosse publications across the country so we’re going to give a good account of ourselves over there.”

The team will compete against the Czech Republic, Canada, USA, England, Finland, Germany, Korea, Netherlands, and Australia. The Iroquois Nationals U-19 will play their first game at 4:00 p.m. on July 13 versus Team England. All the games will be streamed online at 2012 World Lacrosse World Championships.

In 2010, the Iroquois Nationals team known as “Sovereignty Pride” was not allowed to participate in the World Championships in Manchester, England, when the British government denied the team travel visas. The British refusal to recognize the team’s Haudenosaunee passports created an international media blitz that generated more than 3,000 news articles and videos during a week of diplomatic efforts to convince the British government to change its mind. The incident resulted in massive support for the team in the court of public opinion. 

RELATED: UK Denies Travel Visas for Iroquois Nationals

The team is not anticipating any hitches in traveling this year, however, said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Iroquois Nationals board of directors and the team’s legal counsel.

“The host government, Finland, has issued the team with visas and we’ve been told by the U.S. that they will recognize any visa issued by another government,” Gonnella Frichner said.

The team traveled to Prague last year without any obstacles—and came home with a silver medal from the World Indoor Championships. On the home page of the 2012 World Lacrosse Championships website among the familiar, colorful national flags of the USA, Canada,  England, Germany and others is the beautiful white-on-purple flag of the Iroquois Nationals, which represents the Hiawatha wampum belt. The central tree with two white squares on each side connected by a line of white symbolizes unity among the Haudenosaunee nations. The tree at the center of the belt represents the Onondaga Nation, the spiritual capital of the confederacy.

“I think the mission of making a statement internationally that the Confederacy has a national team that can compete on an international level just like the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and England, and seeing how long the struggle took just for them to open the door for us to be a competing nation—well, therein lies the expression of Native sovereignty,” Gonnella Frichner said. 

Being able to compete on an international level also has profound meaning for the team as representatives of indigenous nations beyond the boundaries of the Iroquois Confederacy, Lyons said.

“We’re an international team and we’re playing under our flag, but we’re representing all Indians,” Lyons said. “I think people see us that way.”

It has taken since the early 1980s for the Iroquois Nationals to develop to the level of international play. The team played exhibition games at the 1994 Olympics in Los Angeles and its first international game with the International Lacrosse Federation, FIL’s former name, in 1990 in Perth, Gonnella Frichner said.

“Our Tadodaho [spiritual leader] Leon Shenandoah was there, and the captain of our team was Sid Hill, who is now the tadodaho,” Gonnella Frichner said. “He was a wonderful lacrosse player. Now he serves for us as our spiritual leader and someone who played the game, knows the game and wants very much for the nationals to be successful and be supported.”

The Iroquois believe that the game of lacrosse was given to them, a gift from the Creator. It is a very ancient North American Indian game, played throughout the northeast woodlands. French missionaries first described the game in 1636, fascinated by its intensity and the fast pace of the action. Lacrosse is tremendously important spiritually; so much so that parents place tiny lacrosse sticks in the cribs of Iroquois infants. 

“We don’t call it a sport here; it’s much more than that. It’s based on peace,” Lyons said. “We used to settle disputes by having a game and whoever won, that settled it. It’s a lot better than fighting. In its purest form, it’s a medicine game played for an individual or a nation or both. And at that time the players are transformed into spiritual beings representing the cosmos.”

And you don’t have to be Iroquois to be touched by the spirituality of lacrosse.

“The spiritual aspect of the game comes through,” Lyons said. “A lot of times players who pick up the stick don’t understand it, but they know that there’s something very, very special about this game.”

Supporting the team is a hugely expensive endeavor requiring almost constant fundraising.

“We try to save jerseys, but the equipment constantly has to be replaced,” said Lyons, noting that this year’s trip to Finland will cost close to $300,000.

The team has a longstanding sponsorship agreement with Nike and has received support for the Finland trip from the Onondaga Nation, the Seneca Nation of Indians, the St. Regis Mohawk and the Mohawk MCA, “but we are still short of our goal,” Gonnella Frichner said. “We are competing with the vast financial resources of countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, England, Japan and Finland, and it is a daunting task. However, our players, nations and communities are committed to our lacrosse program, which strives to expose the historical, spiritual and expression of sovereignty of the game of lacrosse to the world at large. We all respect and understand that this game of lacrosse is a gift to us from the Creator.”

Donations are always gratefully accepted, Gonnella Frichner said. Contributions can be made online or by mail to the nonprofit funding sponsor, the American Indian Institute, with a note that it’s for the Iroquois Nationals.

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Iroquois Nationals Ready for World Lacrosse Championships in Finland

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