Iroquois Passports OK in UK, Not USA

The Iroquois lacrosse team has been caught in a classic Catch-22. The U.S. government won't recognize their passports and they won't use U.S. passports as a matter of principle.

The Iroquois invented lacrosse and are scheduled to compete in England for the sport’s world championships. But the State Department says their Haudenosaunee tribal passports won’t be accepted for re-entry and the team refuses U.S. Government passports as a matter of principle.


The Iroquois team, known as the Nationals, represents the six Indian nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy, which the Federation of International Lacrosse considers to be a full member nation, just like the United States or Canada. The Nationals enter this year’s tournament ranked fourth in the world.

The Nationals’ 50-person delegation had planned to travel to Manchester, England, on Sunday on their own tribal passports, as they have done for previous international competitions, team officials said.

But on Friday, the British consulate informed the team that it would only issue visas to the team upon receiving written assurance from the United States government that the Iroquois had been granted clearance to travel on their own documents and would be allowed back into the United States. Neither the State Department nor the Department of Homeland Security would offer any such promise.


Spokesmen for the Department of Homeland Security and the British consulate said that they would not comment on specific cases. A spokeswoman for the State Department would only say that the Iroquois team has been offered expedited United States passports, but they declined that offer.

“It would be like saying the Canadians are having travel difficulties and the U.S. says we’ll make you U.S. passports and you can go over,” Ms. Waterman said.

Uh, no, it wouldn’t. While the various tribes have nominal sovereignty under the Constitution, they’re part of the United States and have full rights of citizenship. They’re more akin to the several states than separate nations.*

Only a few Indian nations issue their own passports, said Robert J. Miller, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., who has written extensively about federal Indian law. He said that he had never heard of the United States government objecting to the use of such a document.

Neither has Robert Anderson, who was associate solicitor for Indian affairs in the Interior Department during the Clinton administration and now directs the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law. “The tribes will probably say, ‘Hey, we’ve got the authority to do this,’ ” he said.

But the State Department said Monday that federal law does not allow a tribal document to be used in lieu of a United States passport when traveling outside the United States. A spokeswoman said that an October 2008 internal directive emphasized that policy, though it noted that other countries had sometimes recognized such documents.

Indian Country Today:

“It seems, as Native people, we always have to do several things to make it through to an objective. There are always hurdles. But this is different, in that we usually do this very quietly and now we feel we need to let people know what’s going on. We’re meeting every hurdle as it comes up” [said Denise Waterman, (Onondaga) a member of the Iroquois Nationals board of directors.]

They had sent their Haudenosaunee passports to the British Consulate in New York and were told they needed to use U.S. or Canadian passports, even though team members have been traveling on Haudenosaunee passports for more than two decades.

“We said we cannot do that. We’re our own people. We are a sovereign nation. We already have travel documents and we’re participating in an international tournament, and to participate in an international tournament you have to be a country. We’ve been recognized by this organization as a country with our own citizens, our own sovereignty, our own land, and flag and anthem and we’ve belonged to this organization since around 1990 and we’ve been sending teams out since that time,” Waterman said.

The Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy is comprised of six nations: Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Cayuga. While each nation is a separate entity, they share a collective identity as Haudenosaunee and are issued Haudenosaunee passports, rather than individual nation passports.


The British wanted the team to travel on U.S. and Canadian documents because there is no category for Haudenosaunee in their visa process, Gonnella Frichner said. But the Nationals will be competing against U.S. and Canadian teams.

“The Iroquois Nationals represent the Iroquois and are going to travel on Haudenosaunee credentials since that’s who we’re representing. It wouldn’t make sense to be asked to travel on the passports of our competitors.”

The team has traveled widely, including to England, Australia, Japan and Canada and has never had a problem returning home.

“It’s just not going to happen that the indigenous people of North American are going to be blocked from returning to our own territory,” Gonnella Frichner said.

The problem, apparently, is the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect last June, and requires very strict documents for re-entry into the country.  The Haudenosaaunee passports are not in compliance.

This is mostly a case of bureaucratic silliness run amok.  Rather obviously, these men are of no harm to the security of the homeland.   And it’s pretty easy to screen a couple dozen people traveling as a sports team.

That said, these people are American citizens and have to comply with the law just like the rest of us.   Idaho’s Kootenai tribe has come up with documents which have gotten the blessing of the Customs and Border Protection agency but none of the other tribes have.

*It’s a wee bit more complicated than that, but there’s no doubt that the Federal Government has sovereignty over the tribes.  See FindLaw‘s superb article on the evolution of SCOTUS opinions on “commerce with Indian tribes” for a useful primer.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    It’s time that those lost cause confederates to recognize that the war was lost.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    Why should they? Those lost cause Confederates of the South can’t seem to get over the fact that they lost…

  3. Herb says:

    A few quibbles:

    The Iroquois didn’t invent Lacrosse. The game predates the Iroquois by hundreds of years. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that Lacrosse may have invented the Iroquois…but that’s a whole different argument for another day.

    Also, on the “several states than separate nations” stuff, I’m not sure that’s right either. Legally, they’re considered “domestic nations.” Not separate, of course, but definitely more like a nation than a state.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    AIP, I believe those in the south use US passports and abide by US laws. When the confederated tribes give up BIA money I’ll be more likely to recognize their sovereignty.

  5. Franklin says:

    India is clearly a sovereign nation. I don’t see why a bunch of Indians need to return to the United States anyway.

    /not trying to be PC or anything, just annoyed that anybody (include Native Americans) still calls them Indians. It is unnecessarily confusing.

  6. JKB says:

    So is hassling a nation of indigenous people one of the federal government’s priorities or objectives that prevent them from enforcing entry requirements on those illegally crossing the border?

    Maybe if they hid their passports and learned passable Spanish, then they could just have walked across the border. It is the whole issue of trying to abide by the system that is causing the problem.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Maybe if they hid their passports and learned passable Spanish, then they could just have walked across the border. It is the whole issue of trying to abide by the system that is causing the problem.

    It’s harder than you might think to sneak across the US-UK border.

  8. Lester Miner says:

    Have we not taken enough from the American Indian? Let’s allow them the respect and dignity they deserve. We have taken their land, pushed them into some of the most inhospitable parts of the country, and every time we found something of value pushed them further. We took from them the ability to live off the land that they respect much more than we do as a whole. So in my opinion the government should let them travel on their own passports.

  9. floyd says:

    Simple, don’t fly into the U.S. … Take a direct flight to the Iroquois Confederacy, They issued the passports didn’t they?

    You don’t suppose the U.S. government would honor a C.S.A. passport , do ya?

  10. Tim says:

    Since no one seems to be from the northern US or southern Canada, I’ll explain that the Iroquios Nation land covers both U.S. & Canada. The players were told to arbitrarily pick allegiance to US or Canada and give up their cultural identity–just to play a sports game. Quit acting like people don’t have a right to hold on to their cultural identity. If you really think cultural identity doesn’t matter, than go outside and burn your great-grandmother’s handmade quilt.

  11. Tim says:

    “The team has traveled widely, including to England, Australia, Japan and Canada and has never had a problem returning home.”

  12. James Joyner says:

    “The team has traveled widely, including to England, Australia, Japan and Canada and has never had a problem returning home.”

    We’ve since tightened up our passports.

    If you really think cultural identity doesn’t matter, than go outside and burn your great-grandmother’s handmade quilt.

    But try using the quilt as an identification document at the border!

    Look, we have all sorts of cultural identities that overlap. International sporting events, though, are organized at the nation-state level. We don’t have teams representing Jews or Southerners or Masons or Homosexuals or whathaveyou but rather the USA, Canada, England, and so forth.