September 10, 2010

Portions of this interview appear in the September issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your monthly subscription.

Politics, Sovereignty and the Iroquois

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Iroquois Nationals executive director Percy Abrams flashes his Haudenosaunee Passport for media members during a July press conference.

Percy Abrams became the executive director of the Iroquois Nationals about seven months before they were supposed to field their best lacrosse team ever at the 2010 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championships. Sid Smith, Cody Jamieson, Jeremy Thompson -- these Nationals were stacked.

Little did Abrams know at the time that they would become international media darlings and living symbols of the Native American struggle for sovereignty.The Iroquois Nationals missed the world championships due to a passport issue that left them stranded in New York. The U.S. Department of State eventually issued a one-time waiver to existing policies, which would’ve allowed the Iroquois’ return to the U.S. after the games. Officials from the United Kingdom, however, ultimately decided against accepting anything but a U.S. or Canadian passport for the Iroquois, many of whom were born in or reside in New York state or southern Canada.

A media firestorm ensued. Abrams was at the epicenter. When the dust settled, Lacrosse Magazine caught up with Abrams for an interview, which follows here in its entirety.

How are you holding up? Are you tired of talking about it yet?

No, we’ve been talking about it quite a bit. Matter of fact, Oren [Lyons] and I were kind of going over it yesterday, some of the things that happened. We hadn’t talked at length about it, recapped it. Oren and I were in different places in the same time and didn’t always know what the other was doing. One hand didn’t know what the other was doing. We were just kind filling some of the stories -- things that I was doing, and he might be off at another press conference. It was a chance for us to get together. 

Take me back to the beginning. When did you guys first learn that your passports would not be honored?

It started June 27, when we tried to take our paperwork to the U.K. consulate in New York City. We weren’t allowed then. Our legal sent a letter to the consulate to let them know we were coming on a certain day, and they said they never received it. We weren’t allowed out.

We spoke to [David] Shuttleworth from English Lacrosse Association and Ron Balls from the Federation of International Lacrosse. We asked them for letters of support, basically letting the U.K. consulate know that we were invited to the tournament and that we were expected to be there for the opening ceremonies and game. They made calls. I’m not sure what happened exactly.

By Friday or so, we had a return on our phone calls and conversations as to what was going to happen. At that time, they told us they wouldn’t accept our passports unless we had a letter from the United States Department of State saying we would be allowed to leave and re-enter the country. And they brought up the fact that they wanted us to go through their biometric scanning and fingerprinting. So at that time, we were trying to figure out the logistics of getting our fingerprinting done and getting a letter from the State Department.

The Confederacy had people in Washington at the time, and we drafted up a quick letter and asked them to deliver it to some of our contacts in the State Department, and they did that.

We were kind of surprised because at first the State Department said no, they weren’t going to allow us to come back into the country. So we were kind of stuck. At that point it was a Friday and we were due. A week went by and we were furiously writing letters back and forth. We got the letter from the State Department saying we weren’t going to be allowed back into the country on our passports. We threw everything out the window, because now we’ve failed to meet the U.K.’s demands.

So we figured we would keep trying, keep pressing. We tried to make an appointment for Monday morning. We were first scheduled to leave on Sunday. And then we realized we weren’t going to be able to leave on Sunday without doing some kind of fingerprinting to appease the U.K. consulate.

We got the team to New York City and got them to the consulate to do the fingerprinting and scanning.

So a lot of that correspondence happened before you guys went to New York?

Some of it happened before we went to New York. Now that we were in New York, we found out that because the State Department wouldn’t give us a letter, everything again went out the window, and the U.K. wasn’t even responding to us. They weren’t even going to let us do the fingerprinting, because we hadn’t come up with the State Department letter.

So at that point we had our team in New York City, and the coaches thought the best thing for us to do would be to keep the guys. Now we were behind the date. We should have actually been in England. We had practices scheduled and scrimmages. We were supposed to scrimmage Scotland.

At that point, one of our coaches made contacts with Wagner College in Staten Island. Wagner offered their field for free so we could run our practices, to get the boys active and moving around. So we went.

Some of our leadership invited the press. And the press, of course, ate it up. Here you have a world-class team stuck in New York City. So that started the whirlwind. It just got crazy from then on. Everyone wanted to hear our story. Everyone wanted an interview. We were basically telling our story. Our story was that we had been traveling on that passport for over 30 years. We had been to the U.K. a number of times. And we were fully expecting to travel on our own passports at this time. As recently as 2002, we had traveled to Australia on our passports, and that was post-9/11.

We had expectations. Our full intention was to go to England. Everything else that happened was because we weren’t able to go to England. It wasn’t our intention to make a stand for our passports. Our intention was to go to England and play. We had a very good team. We had one of the best teams we’ve ever fielded. There were name players. You can look at our roster. There’s a number of stars.

What do you think about it all now that it’s in the rearview mirror?

I was doing an interview and asked in the end, “What did you gain by doing this?” It’s not what we gained. It’s what we didn’t lose. We didn’t lose our integrity. We didn’t lose our dignity. We didn’t lose our identity. We made that stand, and I think it was important for a lot of indigenous people and for indigenous rights for not only Native Americans, but for all over the world.

The rights of indigenous people that we print here at home are basically human rights. One of the things we travel under is the basic human right to return to your home… At the very least, the U.S.-Canadian border cuts through our Long House. The Long House runs from the Mohawk River through the Grand River. People have stood up there. We’ve always traveled through our various communities. The border cuts right through our Long House. A lot of us have family on both sides of the border and it's not uncommon to travel across it to family functions.

What does sovereignty mean to you?

The right of self-determination. The right to govern yourself. And we’ve been practicing that for a long time.

One of the other things that comes with that is the ability and right to write your own passports and travel on those documents. We’ve done that. We’ve been doing it for quite a while.

But we also realize in the post-9/11 world that there’s a need for advanced technology. We’re working on that. Iroquois Nationals are a sport team, and we travel on that document. The Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy is a government, and they have people working on that. We were working with the documents we had, and we’re really not making any comments on the negotiations that people are working on now. That’s their job. There are people working on it. We kind of kept out of that. We got that question quite a bit. “Well, what about advanced documents?” We really don’t have any say in that. We were using the documents we had, and that’s what we were presenting. To tell you the truth, it’s been good enough for 27 years or so. We played on it for quite a while.

Do non-lacrosse playing Haudenosaunee people traveling abroad use those passports as well?

Yeah, a lot of people do, especially on government functions. Our government’s totally involved in the human rights discussion internationally. In the U.N., we have a seat in the permanent forum on indigenous rights. We don’t have a full U.N. seat, but we have a seat on the indigenous rights forum. And we have people that have been doing that for years and years, as well as environmental concerns. We have people that have been traveling and speaking and acting on behalf of indigenous people for years and years, going all around the world on those documents. Again, that’s government, social and political issues that we’re really not involved with, because we’re a lacrosse team. But in the same sense, we were making a stand as well, as they work for us. A lot of those people came forward and spoke on our behalf and advocated for our team to be able to travel. Within a month of us getting banned from traveling to the U.K., one of our chiefs had gone to Stockholm, Sweden, and I believe we even had a guy on a diplomatic mission to Switzerland at the time -- and he returned to Canada using that document.

I don’t know if it’s just a stance the U.K. made. In fact, I shouldn’t even be making a statement about the U.K., because I don’t know what their stance in, other than to say what we heard from them, that they wouldn’t accept our documents. If you want to ask them why, that’s a question for them.

There were reports of expedited U.S. and Canadian passports...

Let me correct you right there. That’s one thing that never came, an offer of expedited Canadian passports. The U.S. State Department offered expedited U.S. passport for players that were eligible for U.S. passports. That still left out half of our team. Even if we were to accept those documents, the other half of the team would still be unable to travel. Maybe it was a matter of time, but at that moment, they hadn’t offered the same expedited passports. Nor had they even approached us. So that’s more of a rumor, that we would have been able to travel on Canadian or American. The other thing is traveling as the Iroquois Nationals -- as the national team for the Iroquois -- it wasn’t even an option for us to travel on a U.S. passport. Our government was sponsoring and sanctioned the team, so for them to sanction us on a U.S. passport would be against their interests.

A lot of people think we’re being stubborn. It wasn’t a matter of being stubborn. It was a matter of principle, identifying who we were playing for.

Being that you guys didn’t make it to Manchester, was it a success or a failure in those terms?

A lot of people not from the team are saying it was a success, that we won without ever going. But for the team, the team is a lacrosse team. We want to play lacrosse. As of right now, we’re planning to get the team together to play in a tournament somewhere and find some high-level competition and see how our team holds up. I’ll just leave that on the rumor mill right now, because it’s a matter of getting the team together and putting them out there, getting them together to do it. When we step on the field, that will be the proof right there. [Note: After this interview, the Iroquois indoor team confirmed a Sept. 26 exhibition against the U.S. indoor team at War Memorial in Syracuse, N.Y.]

Are reports true that Hollywood director James Cameron ("Avatar") came through and donated money to offset the costs of the dispute?

He’s been donating a lot of money to environmental causes and social issues. Our honorary chairman Oren Lyons had approached him and spent some time with him previously. He had gotten in touch with him a month or two before our trip. Nothing really came of it. There are so many issues. A lacrosse team not getting to a tournament is so small compared to some of the human rights abuses and environmental concerns out there. We were probably a little lower on the list.

It came to a point where we were spending all our money. We were burning through our England budget staying in hotels and keeping our guys moving in New York City. When you’re comparing staying on the grounds and eating meal plan provided by the tournament to staying in a hotel and eating restaurant meals in New York, it’s exponentially more expensive than staying in the athlete’s village in Manchester.

Oren sent another e-mail to James Cameron kind of detailing our plight, and James Cameron came through. He turned and gave us $50,000 so we could hang on a couple more days. Oren told him we were probably burning through about $25,000 a day to keep the guys there considering transportation, meals, food and incidentals like flight changes.

Then Delta came through and stopped charging us to change our flights, so that was a big help as well. We were feeling support more and more as we went on. It came to a point where the U.K. wasn’t backing down. One thing that happened which was really kind of disappointing was when [U.S. Secretary of State] Hilary Clinton’s office did come through with a letter saying that we would be allowed to travel and re-enter the U.S. on our passports, the U.K. changed their position and said they still weren’t going to allow our passports. That was disappointing.

The onus is on the U.K. We were still trying various diplomatic moves to get the decision changed and be allowed in. And by Friday, we made a last-ditch effort. Some of our guys play on professional teams. Those professional teams saw the weekend coming up, and it wasn’t looking like we were going to be able to play. We never officially withdrew from the tournament. We kept trying to get in. Eventually, there was a tipping point where we had given up one game, we had given up two games… If you had given up three games, you couldn’t even qualify for a next round. You would be mathematically out of the tournament.

Did the Iroquois Confederacy sacrifice its lacrosse team for the sake of political gain? Were there larger political motives behind this that went beyond lacrosse?

It wasn’t our intention to not go. We had every intention of going. The Confederacy had every intention of letting us go. As far as sacrifice, I don’t think that’s the word. We made a stand for our principles. Our principles are that we have the right to self-determination, self-government and the right to issue our own passports, and we stood by that -- and based on that we have been traveling for 30 years and we have been participating in the World Games since ’92. Is it a sacrifice or what’s the other option? I don’t know.

We didn’t have the option of taking the full team ever. The Canadian consulate never offered our Canadian-eligible players expedited passports. That’s a rumor that hurt. At the moment, that wasn’t an option. I’m not sure what the team would have even consisted of.

Hypothetically, what if the Canadian government offered expedited passports like the U.S. government did? Would you have considered that or would it have still been an identity issue?

It would still have been an identity issue. We would hold the same position we did with the U.S., that we were traveling under the sanction of the Haudenosaunee. That team was supported and funded by Haudenosaunee, and it wasn’t in the interest of the Haudensaunee to have us travel on U.S. or Canadian passports as a national team.

Haven’t incidents like these happened in isolated situations for Iroquois Nationals players in the past?

You’ve got to understand, I’ve only been the executive director for probably seven months prior to the world championships. I wasn’t dealing with these issues before that. I had to figure out who was who and about international lacrosse. My interest before that was my own children and coaching them, following them and their game.

Didn’t the Thomas sisters get held up on their passports before traveling to Prague for the 2009 women's World Cup?

This was just on a grander scale. That’s why it became an international story.

How did the guys react to all the media attention?

Actually, our guys are pretty good. Our young men hear the message a lot. They’ve grown up hearing the message. When there are questions, they understand, because they’ve heard their elders, their older brothers, their uncles answer these questions for years. They know what the answers are. They know what our position is. They feel and they believe in those positions, because they’ve seen other people stand by it. They’ve seen other fights.

An article in Sports Illustrated seems to suggest a lack of organization. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as a executive director of the Iroquois Nationals?

We’re so spread out geographically. We have guys that come from New York City. We have guys who come from near Montreal. We potentially have people from the East Coast all the way to the Oneidas that live in Wisconsin. The Six Nations Reserve, where a number of our players come from, is probably an hour away from Toronto. It’s tough getting practices together. It’s geographically tough. And then our organization’s leadership is from a number of different places. It’s like any other team that has the same problems. For us to even think about getting this team back together, just because of the logistics of it, it’s going to be tough to get all those guys that were on that same trip back together on the same field again, just because of jobs, injuries, any number of reasons that could make it tough to get that team back together. But that’s life. That’s how things work. 

What’s the future of Iroquois lacrosse?

In the immediate future, we are planning to enter the men’s world indoor lacrosse championship in the Czech Republic in May 2011. We’re starting to organize that team. But our leadership is also working towards making sure that we have the proper documents, that we work with the Czech Republic, to make sure that will happen.

Why hadn’t the passport issue been addressed earlier with the British government, before you arrived in New York?

We did approach the U.K. consulate before we came. It didn’t all happen on July 11. We began making contact in June, which I think is fair time to get our documents reviewed and our visas, especially that they knew other teams were coming in… You can’t go back. You can’t change it. We did it how we did it. How we do it from here on out remains to be seen. 

How was this received by non-lacrosse people in the Iroquois community?

We’ve gotten a lot of sport from Native people all over the world, but especially in the U.S. and Canada -- because they’re all feeling the same pressure and, maybe, the same injustice. They identify with our fight.

Did you hear from other indigenous people?

Yeah. We had pretty far contact. I know one of the National Congressmen of American Indians. We’re still getting letters of contact. I took a call yesterday from tribe wanting to send a letter of support to us, but not sure who to send it to.

What will the legacy of these events be when all the dust has settled?

I think it was significant in that our own government is working on the documents, and making sure we have the proper documents for world travel. If this kind of media attention helped their cause, and their ability to get the proper documentation for us, then that’s a big help. That’s a big stride forward for us. The media attention is great for that cause.

We can’t tell people what to be interested in. It was really a human interest story. If it wasn’t a story, people wouldn’t have watched it. If it wasn’t something people wanted to know more about, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.

Have you been approached by any authors or documentary filmmakers who want to latch onto this?

Mostly a couple of documentary writers who want to get interviews or see what happens with us. What we’re more interested in is the angle in which they want to show us, in what light. It’s got to be in our best interest too. If anything ever comes of that -- and I’m not saying it will or won’t -- it will be something that’s deliberated and decided upon by the Iroquois Nationals organization.

Are the Iroquois Nationals also sending a U19 girls’ team to Germany next year?

That issue is something I can’t even comment right now.

You mean the issue of elders allowing the Iroquois to field a women’s team?

Yeah, because it’s something that we’re working on within our own government. It even goes beyond the Iroquois Nationals. That’s an older issue.

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