NEW YORK – An American Indian lacrosse team will not be allowed entry into England for the world championship of the sport the Iroquois helped invent unless members accept U.S. or Canadian passports, the British government said Wednesday.
The Iroquois Nationals team won't be attending the tournament in Manchester unless the British government reverses its decision and allows them to use passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy, said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a lawyer for the team.
"They're telling us: 'Go get U.S. passports or Canadian passports,'" Frichner said Wednesday shortly after getting the news. "It's pretty devastating."
The team's 23 players — who are all eligible for passports issued by those nations — say that accepting them would be a strike against their identity.
In a statement, the U.K. Borders Agency said: "Like all those seeking entry into the U.K., they must present a document that we recognise as valid to enable us to complete our immigration and other checks."
The British government's decision was announced hours after the U.S. cleared the team for travel on a one-time waiver at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. U.S. authorities initially had refused to accept the passports issued by the Iroquois Confederacy, which lack new security features now required for border crossings because of post-Sept. 11 crackdowns on document fraud and illegal immigration.
Asked why the State Department had dropped its opposition, spokesman P.J. Crowley said: "There was flexibility there to grant this kind of one-time waiver given the unique circumstances of this particular trip."
U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., urged the British to reconsider their decision.
"If the British or any national entity seeks to sever this Iroquois Nationals team from their own national identity, then they're asking them to not be the athletes that they are," he said in a statement, calling it an "international embarrassment" if they're not allowed to compete.
Federation of International Lacrosse spokesman Ron Balls said in a statement on the championship website that the Iroquois team would forfeit the opening game against England on Thursday night if it didn't arrive on time. But Frichner and other team supporters had held out hope that the game would be rescheduled.
The Iroquois team is ranked No. 4 by the Federation of International Lacrosse and represents the Haudenosaunee — an Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Cayuga and Onondaga nations, whose land stretches from upstate New York into Ontario, Canada.
The Iroquois helped invent lacrosse, perhaps as early as 1,000 years ago. Their participation in the once-every-four-year world championship tournament is a rare example of international recognition of their sovereignty.
U.S. authorities had said the issue was a matter of border security rather than Iroquois sovereignty.
"For other countries, including the United States, that is not a travel document that is on par with a U.S. passport," Crowley said of the Iroquois documents. He noted that the Iroquois have had similar problems with their passports in foreign countries before.
"The best way to open doors around the world is to obtain a U.S. passport," he said.
New U.S. passports contain embedded radio-frequency identification chips, similar to the ones inside highway toll transponders. The Iroquois documents look similar to U.S. passports but are emblazoned with a Haudenosaunee insignia featuring a tree and animal emblems. The simple blue booklet is made with thinner paper than U.S. passports, has no high-tech chips and some information is handwritten.
At least four Indian nations, including the Kootenai of Idaho; the Pasqua Yaqui of Arizona; the Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona and Mexico; and the Seneca of New York have been working with federal officials to develop ID cards that meet new security guidelines, but they would be good only for arrivals in the U.S. by land or sea, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Frichner, who also is the North American Regional Representative to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said the Iroquois have almost completed a transition to higher security passports. The process has cost the six-nation confederacy more than $1.5 million, she said.
Native Americans are not the only ones that have been asked to beef up travel document security features in recent years.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. has tightened up identification rules for foreign travelers from close U.S. allies such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom. A growing number of visitors from those countries who wish to travel to the U.S. without a visa must now present passports containing digital photographs and embedded electronic information.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative also began requiring most U.S. citizens to present their passports when re-entering the country from Canada or Mexico. Previously, travelers needed only to show a driver's license and orally declare their citizenship.
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik in New York, Matthew Lee in Washington and Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.