The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations, is a confederation of five, and later six, tribes indigenous to North America and based in upper New York state and southern Canada. The original confederacy was founded by the Great Peacemaker treaty in 1142 and is considered one of the world’s oldest participatory democracies.
It was also to influence the political makeup of modern America: in 1988, the U.S. Senate paid tribute with a resolution that said, “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was inﬂuenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”
The Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee, while physically within the territory of the United States and Canada, are judged to be sovereign nations. However, to date that status has not been recognised by the UN. Why is this important to sport in general and Lacrosse in particular?
Let me tell you a story.
Lacrosse as a sport was invented by the indigenous people of North America, who in turn say they received the game from the Creator. They refer to it as a Medicine Game and they used it as a way to celebrate community as well as to train young men for battle. The game was played by two opposing teams numbering hundreds of men, typically from different villages, and could cover a playing field of many miles. The game could also last several days and was very physical. Each player had a stick with a net which was used to transport a small ball. Goals were achieved when the ball was thrown into a net of the rival team. The rules initially were changed from tribe to tribe with some versions allowing players to have two sticks apiece.
It was in the late 1800s that a dentist from Montreal named William George Beers codified the game as we know it today. The modern name, Lacrosse, was derived from Jesuit missionaries working in the North Americas. Despite trying to ban the game, they thought the playing sticks resembled that of a bishop’s crozier and hence La Crosse became Lacrosse. , emblematic of the nature of the game, including names which translate into English as ‘we bump hips’ or ‘little brother of war’.
The game gathered international popularity with Canadians adopting it as the national sport. Exhibition teams then spread the game across America and into Europe. Queen Victoria saw an exhibition match in 1876 and declared the game ‘pretty’ which resulted in a number of schools in the UK adopting the sport, which was further popularised by Enid Blyton’s best-selling children’s books in the 1940s.
Lacrosse briefly appeared in the Olympics in 1904 and 1908 before being dropped. However, in the 1908 games, a Canadian team won the Gold medal, and the captain of the team was Irishman Paddy Brennan – so an Irishman holds an Olympic medal for Lacrosse.
The history of Lacrosse in Ireland has been sporadic. It was first introduced into Newtownards in 1872 with men’s teams springing up mostly across Northern Ireland at this time. The codifier of the game, William George Beers, invited an Irish team to play exhibition matches in the US and Canada in 1886 where they enjoyed a three-month tour.
But as the century aged, Lacrosse faced stiff competition from other organised sports such as rugby, soccer and GAA and the men’s sport faltered. Then during the 1920s women’s Lacrosse began to become popular, playing internationally with the green jersey until again dying out in the ‘70s.
Fast forward to 2001 a new men’s Ireland national team was formed which went to compete in a European Championship in Wales and everything took off again. While still a minority sport in Ireland it has an active and growing population of around 300 players. A new schools’ competition launched in 2019 had just six teams but the enrolment for 2020, pre COVID, was up to 16 teams.
The modern game is played on a pitch the same size as a soccer pitch with ten players in each team – three defenders, three midfielders, three attackers and one goalkeeper. It is a very physical game – a mixture of hurling and ice hockey. The players have a stick and net which they use to pass the ball with the aim of landing it in a net measuring six feet by six feet. It is still a physical game and can be very fast with runs of play similar to basketball.
Lacrosse is part of the World Games, which is a multi-sport event which is essentially a staging platform for the Olympics. World Lacrosse is actively seeking to reinstate the game into the Olympics. The next World Games is being held in Alabama, US in 2022. Up until the start of this month, the Irish national Lacrosse team had qualified for the event.
And this is where the story between Ireland and the Iroquois Confederacy gets interesting. The Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team was ranked third in the world, and Ireland was ranked 12th, based on final placement at the World Championship in Israel in 2018. However, any teams playing in the 2022 World Games event would also need to meet eligibility requirements under Olympic rules – to fulfil the ambition of migrating Lacrosse to the Olympics.
The Iroquois Nationals are not recognised as a sovereign state and were therefore not invited. Only eight teams were going forward and Ireland moved up the ranks as other teams were deemed ineligible as well. Scotland for example as it competes under the Team GB in the Olympics. Teams from the Philippines and Puerto Rico were only associate members in 2018 and were excluded on that basis, which paved the way for Ireland to find itself as the eighth and final team.
Michael Kennedy, founder and CEO of Lacrosse Ireland takes up the story:
“While we were initially very excited, we were looking at the Iroquois team. They started an online social media campaign that drew a lot of attention with some 70,000 signatures. In fairness, World Lacrosse, and the International World Games Association which manages the World Games listened. Something had to be done.
“On our side, far from being upset, Irish players and supporters were signing the petition and suggesting that we might even go as far as to boycott the Games. So, we surveyed our operations group – about 30 leaders within our organisation – and they all agreed unanimously that we should do whatever it took to support the Iroquois. We were ready, if asked, to vacate our position.”
When the call came the CEO of World Lacrosse didn’t even have to ask the question – Michael vacated the place.
“It’s important to say that we vacated – it’s a legal term to mean that the place was never ours to begin with. That’s important to state as the Iroquois Nationals were in the medals and earned their place fair and square.
“What we wanted to do is enable the Iroquois to take back what is rightfully theirs, which is a position among the top teams in the world.”