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In 1847, the Choctaw Nation sent the equivalent of €4,000 of aid to Ireland for Famine relief. One hundred and seventy one years later, former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited Oklahoma to thank the Choctaw people and announce the establishment the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship Programme. The occasion marked an important moment in the Irish tradition of solidarity with marginalised peoples internationally.
Recently, the relationship between Ireland and the indigenous nations in North America saw another selfless act of solidarity, though in a way most Irish people might be unfamiliar with. On 2 September, it was announced that Ireland Lacrosse would be voluntarily vacating its spot in the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama to make room for the Iroquois Nationals, the team representing the Native Americans of the Iroquois Confederacy. Many, if not most, Irish people would be unfamiliar with lacrosse. They might have a vague notion of “that-game-with-the-nets,” or seen it depicted as the sport the jocks play in the film American Pie. But lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in North America, and it’s also gaining global popularity, being played in places as far reaching as Colombia, Germany, Korea, and Australia. Lacrosse is in Ireland too, with teams often based around the universities such as UCC, UCD, NUIG and Queens.
To understand the gravity of Ireland Lacrosse’s decision, one has to understand the origins of the sport. Lacrosse, much like hurling, is an ancient game. Yet it’s difficult to qualify or quantify what the Iroquois Nationals mean to the game of lacrosse. While some sports, like basketball, find their origins in gym class, lacrosse’s roots are much more profound.
The version of the game the world plays today was gifted by the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Haudenosaunee, a group of six tribes located in New York and southern Canada. Lacrosse is enshrined as part of Iroquois culture and spirituality. When males are born they’re given a lacrosse stick made from hickory and leather. Native Americans all over North America have played versions of lacrosse for generations upon generations, sometimes playing the game over miles of woodland as a proxy for disputes or battles. In fact, the Cherokee name for the sport translates to “little war.” But there’s also a spiritual aspect to the game. The Iroquois say they play the game for the Creator, and refer to lacrosse as “the Medicine Game.” Oren Lyons, Iroquois elder and faith-keeper, says, “The way you play lacrosse is a manifestation of your spirit.”
The Iroquois’ style is creative and incredibly skillful and Iroquois players, such as Lyle Thompson, Randy Staats, and Zed Williams, are seen as the best players in the world. In international competition, the US, Canada, and Iroquois are the perennial powerhouses, and despite having a fraction of the population and player selection pool that their competitors have, the Iroquois have won games against both of its vastly larger neighbors.
However, it has always been a struggle for the Iroquois to participate in international competition because of issues of sovereignty. The Iroquois are one of many indigenous nations around the world that are sovereign, living on reservations of land established at various times in their histories via treaties with respective governments. These treaties maintain the Iroquois’ freedom to govern themselves and operate as an independent nation. And there’s a long list of examples of disrespect towards their sovereignty and their culture. For example, the Iroquois Nationals were forced to forfeit the 2010 World Games in Manchester, England because the UK wouldn’t recognized their Iroquois passports.
The most recent development in the Iroquois’ struggle for recognition occurred when they were noticeably absent from the roster of eight teams competing in the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama. Players and fans took to social media to protest, and representatives of the Iroquois team released statements calling for an explanation and inclusion.
Also, the exclusion of the Iroquois from the 2022 World Games roster is a harbinger of the fraught decisions to come, as the governing body of the sport at the international level, World Lacrosse, pushes for the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic Games. Currently, it is unclear, and even unlikely, that indigenous nations such as the Iroquois would be able to field their own teams in the Olympics.
After a whirlwind of pushback, though, World Lacrosse relented, ruling that the Iroquois Nationals would be eligible for the 2022 competition. However, the eight teams had already been selected.
Amidst the controversy, the question became clear: is a lacrosse event without the Iroquois Nationals even worth having at all?
Ireland Lacrosse answered through selfless action.
You have gone above and beyond not only for us, but for what you believe is right.
Your actions have spoken louder than words showing everyone the true power of sport, and the spirit of lacrosse.
— IROQUOIS NATIONALS LACROSSE (@IRQ_Nationals) September 3, 2020
The statement issued by World Lacrosse on 2 September via its website and Twitter page quotes Michael Kennedy, CEO of Ireland Lacrosse, saying, “It’s simply the right thing to do.” Kennedy continued, “We knew it was time to play our part and voluntarily step aside.”
In light of the recent international movements for social justice, Ireland Lacrosse has stepped up. The lacrosse community is relatively small, but growing, and while it’s still dealing with the stereotype as the sport of the privileged, white male, players, coaches, and fans in Ireland and around the world are forging ahead to refocus on the inclusive origins of the game, channeling the approach of the Iroquois.
In an interview with Kay Burley of Sky News, Luke Moloney of Ireland Lacrosse and Chase Scanlan of the Iroquois Nationals spoke about the newfound connection between the two teams. Moloney restated Ireland Lacrosse’s respect for the game, and support of the Iroquois while Scanlan relayed the Iroquois’ thanks and desire to support Ireland Lacrosse in the future, saying, “We’re also going to be representing Ireland in the ’22 games.”
The U19 World Games were supposed to be held in Limerick this past summer, but due to COVID-19, the event was postponed until the summer of 2021, setting up the perfect time for Ireland Lacrosse and the Iroquois Nationals to come together again, under the banner of Ireland Lacrosse’s organizational motto: I dTeannta a Chéile. Together as One.