July 14, 2010 -- Despite the help of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was denied permission to travel to England due to a passport dispute with the British government.
As a result, the team will miss a world championship lacrosse competition in Manchester.
The team has been stranded in New York City since Sunday because U.S. officials refused to recognize the players' Iroquois Confederacy passports and British authorities would not allow them to come to England without a guarantee that they would be allowed to return to the United States.
The State Department granted the team a one-time waiver Wednesday that would have allowed them to travel on the tribal passports after Clinton intervened on their behalf, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
But the British government is refusing to allow the team to travel to England using passports it does not recognize. A British Consulate spokeswoman says the team would be able to travel only with documents the United Kingdom considers valid, according to the Associated Press.
Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Onondaga Nation who works with the team, says it was told by British officials that members would have to use American or British passports in order to travel to Britain.
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.
The team, which represents the sovereign Iroquois nation in upstate New York and Ontario, Canada, was originally scheduled to depart New York Sunday night. But the State Department said it would not allow the Iroquois back into the country on their Iroquois passports as they have always done in the past.
The State Department had previously offered to issue U.S. passports to the players, who declined as a matter of principle. U.S. officials agreed this morning to honor the tribal passports instead.
Iroquois Have Used Their Own Passports for Decades
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," Tonya Gonnella Frichner, who is a member of the board of directors and legal counsel for the team, told ABCNews.com on Tuesday.
She said the team has traveled to England, Japan, and Australia in the past on their Iroquois Nation passports without a problem.
Crowley said the State Department's intial refusal to recognize the passports was because of security concerns about the documents themselves. He said the Iroquois passports are not "on par" with the caliber of U.S. passports.
He 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 on Tuesday.
As for the permission to travel, the State Department said this is a one-time special allowance and that the players cannot expect to travel internationally on their Iroquois passports in the future.
"They will need a U.S. passport, you know, to avoid a similar situation the next time they travel, for any kind of international competition," Crowley said.
The State Department's decision forced the Iroquois to change their flights and find a hotel in Manhattan while they awaited more information. The delay has cost the team thousands of dollars in hotel rooms, meals and change fees to rebook their flights.
Political Leaders Across the Country Support Iroquois Cause
Clinton's decision to provide the team with special clearance may have been influenced by people such New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
"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."
Slaughter, who represents a portion of upstate New York where much of the team is from, also lobbied for their cause.
"This same core group of players, representing the six Indian nations that includes upstate New York and Canada, have traveled internationally for more than 20 years without interruption to participate in this tournament," she wrote on her website Tuesday. "I definitely don't want to see this wonderful tradition end simply because of a paperwork holdup."
Slaughter praised the State Department's decision Wednesday. "I am relieved that this bureaucratic technicality has been papered over and these young men can go and do what they have trained to do: play lacrosse and compete on the international scene," she said.
Team general manager Ansley Jemison said the players have remained focused despite the media attention.
"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, practiced Sunday and Monday at Wagner College on Staten Island, and practiced in Bayville, N.Y., Tuesday night.
"This is 23 world-class athletes," he said. "We just want to get over there and compete."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.