Iroquois lacrosse players will have to wait another day to find out whether they can travel to the World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England, after the United States maintained its refusal this afternoon to recognize their tribal passports.
"Things were moving very quickly this afternoon, but they ran out of time," team board member Barbara Barnes said.
After being stranded in New York City since Sunday, the players departed Manhattan on a bus for Kennedy Airport early this afternoon hoping to leave on a 4 p.m. flight to Amsterdam, although they had yet to be cleared to fly. By the time the flight was ready to take off, the players still had not been given permission to fly by the State Department.
The State Department said in a briefing that an offer to provide the players with U.S. passports is still available, but the team has refused as a matter of principle.
When asked if the State Department would provide the team with the necessary documents to travel on their Iroquois passports, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "There are specific criteria as to the circumstance under which you can provide those letters. This situation does not meet that criteria."
The team, which represents the sovereign Iroquois nation in upstate New York and Ontario, Canada, hopes to be cleared by the morning and plans to take the same flight tomorrow afternoon, which would put the players on English soil Thursday morning, in time for the game that night.
"It's happened before where we've come off a plane, with not much rest, and had to play," Barnes said.
"Everybody's in real good spirits," she said. "[They are] just waiting to get over there to play lacrosse."
The team was originally scheduled to depart Sunday evening to arrive with time to practice and adjust before their game against host nation England Thursday evening.
As they had always done in the past, the 23 players on the Nationals team had planned to use their Iroquois passports to travel out of the United States until the State Department refused to allow the players to return to the United States without U.S. passports. As a result, British officials refused to grant the team visas to enter the country for the nine-day tournament.
The decision forced the Iroquois to change their flights and find a hotel in Manhattan while they awaited more information and hoped to be cleared to travel by this afternoon, which would have allowed them to make it in time for their first game.
The delay has already cost the team thousands of dollars in hotel rooms, meals and change fees to rebook their flights. Originally, they had planned to fly directly from New York to Manchester. Their Tuesday flight would have forced them to connect in Amsterdam and then take a five-hour bus from London to make it to Manchester.
Team officials did not expect to encounter such a problem with the passports, which are issued by the Iroquois Confederacy. The Confederacy consists of the six Iroquois nations.
"Our people ... have been traveling on these passports since 1977," said Tonya Gonnella Frichner, who is a member of the board of directors and legal counsel for the team.
She said the team has traveled to England, Japan, and Australia in the past on their Iroquois Nation passports without a problem.
When asked if she or anyone with the team knew why the government had refused the passports, Frichner responded, "We're not sure."
Blame the New Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
The State Department has offered U.S. passports to the players who are eligible for them but they have refused them on principle. Some of the players are from Canada.
"The United States has always taken a position that we are a sovereign nation," she said.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has spoken out in favor of the Iroquois.
"It's a matter of tribal sovereignty and respecting the rights of the Native American population of this country," Richardson said in an e-mail.
"There is a longstanding legal principle that acknowledges that Tribes have civil authority over their own members. The issuance of a passport is one way to exercise that authority."
According to Frichner, the State Department told team officials that "policy and legal restrictions" prevented them from granting the Iroquois clearance to travel.
"They didn't cite the legal restriction that they were referring to," Frichner said.
The State Department's Crowley told the Associated Press that the issue stems from the new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which began last year.
"Since they last traveled on their own passports, the requirements in terms of the kind of documents that are necessary to facilitate travel within and outside the hemisphere have changed," Crowley told the AP. "We are trying to help them get the appropriate travel documents so they can travel to this tournament."
While Frichner and other team officials worked to sort out the passport debacle, the players used the extra time together to practice and grow closer together as a team.
"It's been a blessing in disguise, actually," team general manager Ansley Jemison told ABCNews.com. "It's been a really good team bonding experience."
The Nationals, ranked fourth in the world, were able to practice at Wagner College on Staten Island on Sunday and Monday. The Iroquois are credited as one of the first tribes to invent and play lacrosse, according to USLacrosse.org. When the game was first invented is not clear, but the earliest European settlers to the Great Lakes region observed the natives playing a form of lacrosse.
Jemison remained focused on the game despite the travel difficulties and ensuing media attention.
"This is 23 world class athletes," he said. "We just want to get over there and compete."