Denied at the Border: Security at the Risk of Sovereignty

By Cam Martin

Recently, an Iroquois lacrosse team had the opportunity to compete in an international tournament in Manchester, England, but they were unable to enter the country using the special passports they had been given as a unique First Nations group. An exaggerated focus on security may be a necessity in the post-9/11 world, but this incident brings to light issues about the legitimacy of certain First Nations identification documents and those peoples’ rights to govern themselves.

After initially refusing to accept the Iroquois’ passports because they lacked security features required on conventional passports, the State Department gave the team a one-time waiver. However, this waiver would only be acceptable if the members of the tribe used another form of identification. Efforts to persuade British officials fell on deaf ears, meaning the team wouldn’t be able to play its last scheduled game of the tournament. The situation has angered many human rights advocates and First Nations representatives. It has even attracted the attention of Hollywood director James Cameron (director of the blockbuster movie Avatar). Cameron donated $50,000 to help the athletes defray the costs of being stuck at the airport and missing out on planned accommodations.

Modern lacrosse originated from an indigenous North American stickball game called “baggataway,” and this Iroquois team was ranked fourth in the world by the Federation of International Lacrosse. They represent the Haudenosaunee—an Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, Cayuga, and Onondaga nations, whose land stretches from upstate New York into Ontario. The group, whose people live on both side of the Canadian and American border, refuse passports from either country as a matter of principle. “Any documents or IDs we put forth recognizing our members should also be recognized by the federal government and other governments,” argued a member of the American Indian community.

In recent months, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been working with tribes to develop tribal ID cards with enhanced security features. Those would be good for arrivals in the U.S. by either land or sea but couldn’t be used in lieu of a federal passport. Twenty-five tribes already have or are working toward formal agreements. Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians hopes that the cards would allow tribal members to travel abroad. “It would have all the secure attributes that a passport would have, certainly a record of membership of that respective nation,” says Holden. Hopefully, the new ID cards will help ensure this kind of discrimination won’t happen in the future.