Inuits, Iroquois and Sioux – some interesting similarities

As many of our readers know, Greenland, the land of Inuits, is a place with a [u]fanatic interest in handball[/u]. In fact, measured per capita, there is no other nation with more handball players. Greenland has been a Danish territory since 1721, but more recently with a ‘home rule’ provision. Last year, Greenland obtained ‘self rule’ status, following a referendum, a vital step towards formal independence. In sports, Greenland does not have an Olympic Committee, but eight major sports are coordinated by a national sports federation. Handball is indeed a vital activity for the youth in Greenland.

Greenland is a full member of the IHF since 1998 and has participated in numerous World Championships in different categories. In fact, Greenland took part in the Women’s Junior World Championship in Korea last month. The allocation of Greenland to the Panamerican continent has at times been controversial, both on grounds of principle and for the practical reason that it creates a continent with huge distances for travel. But in reality, the only ones who have been forced to cope with such travel are the Greenland teams themselves, frequently traveling to South America, as no Panamerican events have been allocated for hosting by Greenland.

One other concern that has been heard from various Panamerican sources over the years is: ‘how can we know that we are really playing against a true Greenland team, as it is normal for the players to travel under Danish passports’. In the end, I think the other countries have been convinced by what I know to be an absolute reality: the pride of the people in Greenland in their athletes and teams who represent them abroad would never permit a situation where a non-native would be allowed on a team.

While the Inuits of Greenland thus have had their special status and issues in their international sports participation, there is another group that is facing similar but even more awkward problems. Many here in the U.S. are familiar with the sport of lacrosse, although not everyone knows a lot about its origins. Just like I was relatively unaware until recently, I think there would also be a widespread lack of awareness that lacrosse exists in some many countries around the world. The Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) has about 25 ‘full members’, 15 ‘associate members’ and 35 ‘emerging nations’.

BUT the biggest secret, at least to me, was that the Haudenosaunee nation (six Iroquois Indian tribes) is a full member of the FIL!!! If you are intrigued and want to learn some further details about this nation, then I suggest that you ‘google’ and check out some web sites, but suffice it to say here that these North American Indians are the ones who [u]invented lacrosse[/u] in its original form. (It was described in 1636 by a French missionary as the ‘Jeu de la Crosse’). Even more astonishingly, they are highly competitive internationally today. For instance, the Iroquois men are ranked [u]fourth[/u] in the world, behind Canada, USA and Australia, but ahead of England!

The crux, however, is their long-standing and proud independence. The Haudenosaunee nation has treaties with the U.S. that go back two centuries, and they have been traveling around the world on their own passports for over 30 years, for instance participating in previous lacrosse world championships. Suddenly this year, just before the start of the Men’s World Championship in England, the U.S. government announced that these passports would no longer be valid. (Security concerns involving the old-fashioned, partly hand-written passports appeared to be the reason). This decision was totally traumatic for the Iroquois, not just because of the planned travel but for much more fundamental reasons related to history and culture. In the end, the U.S. State Department backed down, but unfortunately the U.K. government did not, so the team had to stay home.

To complete the circle back to [u]handball[/u], it should be noted that American Indians participated for two years in the mid-1990s with their own a team at the U.S. nationals in handball. It was an all-star team, put together after nationwide try-outs, that participated with some modest success on the men’s side. (A women’s team had also been put together but was not seen to be competitive enough.) The whole endeavor was made possible through the support of the Native American Sports Council (NASC).

My understanding is that their interest in handball remains. Both the NASC and many tribal leaders recognize the potential value of sports, also at the competitive level, as a way of providing inspiration and an outlet for young Native Americans. Many of them are growing up under miserable social and economic conditions, and they are facing a difficult situation with huge unemployment and limited prospects. My contacts with a former national team player (at the Olympic level) and referee, Dan Foster, who is back at his family’s Sioux reservation (Rosebud in southernmost South Dakota), suggest that a resurgence might be viable with some support from USA Handball.