"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Iroquois Nationals in Sports Illustrated

With over 3 million subscribers and a readership estimated at almost 23 million adults each week, Sports Illustrated has a profound reach into the national conscience of America.  While known mostly for its large glossy images and yearly swimsuit edition, the magazine does produce some very reputable hard-hitting journalism.  Such was the case this week with the article "Pride of a Nation."

July 19, 2010 edition

The plight of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team has been hard to miss this past week.  As the only group of American Indians who compete internationally as a sovereign nation, they have successfully traveled abroad for decades using their own tribally issued Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) passports.

Security concerns between the United States and world championship host country United Kingdom prevented them from flying overseas.  Despite an offer of expediated United States passports, the Nationals players refused to travel on anything but their own tribal passports, resulting in the forfeit of two games and eventual withdrawal from the tournament.

Iroquois passport

The article "Pride of a Nation"  by S.L. Price appears in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated magazine (Sports Illustrated. July 19, 2010. pp. 60-71).  It relates the history and significance of Lacrosse for the Haudenosaunee or 'People of the Long House' as the Iroquois call themselves in their own language.  It makes for a very compelling read and provides a fascinating insight into one nation's relationship with the sport that "honors the Creator."

Top reasons why this is a good article:

--It's a compelling human interest story with several uplifting personal tales (whether funny, sad, or just plain odd, this article has it all).

--It doesn't shy away from Native spirituality, instead embracing that aspect of the culture (but also allows them to be wholly modern too).

--It paints a realistic picture of modern Native life, blemishes and all (particularly the hardships of poverty, drugs, and alcohol which have plagued many players).

--It emphasizes the Iroquois as a unique and distinct cultural and sovereign entity (especially in their fight against obscurity in the minds of many outsiders).

--It deftly demonstrates the connections along 900 years of Iroquois history (but also shows the current struggle to balance tradition and modernity).

And the best part:

--It was in Sports Illustrated!

The most striking moments in the article are when the Nationals talk about their encounters with non-Native people during their American and world adventures:

There's no team like it, they say.  When the Iroquois Nationals travel, overseas especially, they carry a mystique born of Hollywood imagery and pure novelty.  So English schoolkids ask Nationals coaches, "How does the smoke get out of your house? Do you still hurt people?" and Japanese opponents treat the players like rock stars, and reporters flock to see the exotics in action.  Thus is delivered the only message that matters.  "We're still here," Smith says.

"The Nationals are showing the world that we are on the map," Jacques says, his voice rising.  "When you say Indians, Native Americans, what pops into mind?  Out west, in a tepee, on a reservation, alcohol, drug abuse, drain on society, poverty, uneducated-- beaten down.  How many negatives can they put on this group of people?  So to have a positive there on the world stage is such a big thing for us." (p. 68)

I couldn't say it any better myself.  Right from Native voices, we get the real scoop on how many outsiders still view Native Americans.  While I hope these are all isolated incidents, they still demonstrate the constant struggle against Indian stereotypes that perpetuate from the wider (and usually whiter) world.

"Pride of a Nation" is simply one article in one magazine but with the capacity to reach over 23 million readers, it could make a small but still significant contribution in educating the world that indeed:

"We're still here."

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