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The Haudenosaunee Nationals’ quest to play under their own flag at the Olympics

Lacross returns to the Olympic Games in 2028, and the Haudenosaunee Nationals have no intention of watching from the sidelines. The team represents the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the birthplace of the sport, which straddles the US-Canadian border and is made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga people. The Haudenosaunee Nationals’ 2028 Olympic campaign would not be a first. In 1904 a team of Mohawk players competed in the St. Louis Olympics, but officially represented Canada. Now these longtime contenders on the international stage are looking to make history and play under their own banner at Los Angeles 2028, making them the first North American indigenous nation to do so.

“(Lacrosse) is part of our existence,” said Nationals Executive Director Leo Nolan. “It’s us, so it’s just as important as anything else in our lifestyle: who we are. It’s about who we are, so it’s absolutely important for us to contribute this game to the rest of the world.”

The Nationals’ bid for a place at LA 2028 received major support from Joe Biden offered his support in December.

“Their ancestors invented the game. They’ve been perfecting it for millennia. Their circumstances are unique. And they should be given an exception to field their own team in the Olympics,” Biden said.

Nolan said that while they did not directly ask for Biden’s support, it was greatly appreciated.

As Nolan notes, the Haudenosaunee Nation has always been independent, something that boosts their mission to participate in the Olympics. He highlights their treaties with the US, France, Great Britain, New York State and the Netherlands as examples of the country’s independence.

This history of Haudenosaunee independence is matched by the indigenous people’s long and illustrious record in the Olympic Games. The Sac and Fox Nation‘s Jim Thorpe, a professional baseball and football player, won two gold medals in Stockholm in 1912. In 1964, Lakota Marine Billy Mills shocked the track world by taking gold in the 10,000 meters. Cathy Freeman’s 400m victory at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was seen as a defining moment for Aboriginal people, and was recently voted by Guardian readers as the top moment in the country’s sporting history.

Karuk ice dancer Naomi Lang is among these pioneers. In 2002, she became the first Native American woman to compete in the Winter Olympics, where she and her partner placed 11th.

“It was the coolest feeling. It was such an amazing feeling to know that you are making history and doing it for my tribe,” she says.

Lang believes that the relationship between the Olympics and indigenous peoples has been respectful. She says fellow competitors were intrigued by her Karuk heritage and she never faced discrimination.

That said, the story isn’t all rosy. The 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, the first Games to be held in the US, recommended Anthropology Daysa racist spectacle that showcased people of color, including Native Americans, in a zoo-like environment, while Canadian First Nations’ response to Vancouver 2010 was mixed at best. Meanwhile, so has Abenaki scholar Christine O’Bonsawin critical of athletes forced to compete for colonizing countries.

But Nolan says there is growth and learning, and compliments the Olympics for that to recover Thorpe’s medals in 2022.

The Haudenosaunee would not be the first country whose independence is not recognized by the UN to participate in the Games. Examples abound, including Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, Palestine, Taiwan and Aruba. There are indeed more National Olympic Committees may have recognized UN countries, but the Haudenosaunee are not among them, making inclusion in 2028 a long shot at this point.

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The IOC told the Guardian that “only National Olympic Committees (NOCs) recognized by the IOC can register teams for the Olympic Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter.” The IOC said it is up to Canada and the U.S. to include Haudenosaunee athletes in their squads.

If the IOC ultimately allows the Haudenosaunee Nationals to compete in 2028, Nolan says, it will be of great symbolic importance, proving that the Games value inclusivity and ensuring the best athletes are represented. He says World Lacrosse has been in contact with the IOC and he remains optimistic about seeing the Haudenosaunee in LA. Lang thinks they would be supported by indigenous people around the world, and serve as inspiration for young athletes.

“If indigenous people represented their own tribe, that would be huge. It would just give us the recognition that we were here, that we are still here and that we are still strong,” she says.

After her father passed away three years ago, Lang became more connected to her roots. She says giving Indigenous athletes the choice to represent their Indigenous nation would be a big deal.

“There is so much I have learned in the last three years. Now I would absolutely 100% say I would be representing the Karuk tribe if I ran,” she says.

If the Haudenosaunee, who won a bronze medal at the World Men’s Lacrosse Championships in June, get that opportunity at the Olympics, Nolan believes they can make the most of that opportunity and win gold.

“I don’t think about it,” he says. “I know we can do it.”