Why the tribe who invented lacrosse can't play it here

A transatlantic visa row means this week's world championships in the UK may not feature one of the favourites.

When young warriors of the Native American Iroquois tribe gathered for lacrosse games hundreds of years ago, they faced a truly Herculean test of stamina. Long before it became an hour-long game for 20 players, lacrosse was a mammoth team sport with hundreds of participants battling it out on a pitch that could be anything up to a mile long, sometimes for three days straight. As a result the Iroquois, who along with the Huron helped invent lacrosse, know a thing or two about playing the long game.

Despite their reputation for astonishing endurance, the tribe's current crop of lacrosse players appear to have come up against two immovable objects: the bureaucratic might of the Home Office and the US State Department.

The Iroquois Nationals, ranked fourth in the world, had been due to fly to Manchester on Sunday to begin training for the World Lacrosse Championships where they are supposed to play Britain in the opening game tomorrow evening. The match was billed as a clash between the descendants of the original creators of the sport with the host nation.

The Nationals are made up of members from the six Native American nations that form the Iroquois Confederacy which is recognised by the Federation of International Lacrosse – the sport's governing body – as a full member nation like the other competitors in their group such as Britain, Canada and Japan.

Proud of their Native American heritage, the team have always travelled to tournaments on their own Iroquois passports and, until now, they never had a problem with those documents. But the British consulate in New York refused to issue travel visas unless the US State Department gave written assurances that players would be allowed back into America once the tournament was over. What began as a single piece of British red tape has since descended into an angry debate across the Atlantic over Native American citizenship after the US government refused to issue such a letter.

At first glance it might seem strange that a team would risk travelling on documents that even the State Department's own literature says are "not considered passports". But the Nationals have been successfully travelling on their Iroquois passports since 1977 and did not expect to encounter issues this time.

When they flew to the championships in Australia eight years ago, Canberra readily issued visas. The same went for recent trips to Japan and Canada. The team even used the Iroquois passports to fly to Britain in 1994, the last time the championships were held in Manchester, and were waved through immigration.

The US government has offered the team expedited American passports to allow them to travel to Manchester but the Iroquois have refused to accept any compromise which they say would deny their tribe sovereignty or recognition in the tournament that they are a separate entity from the American lacrosse team.

"It might seem like we're just fighting a point of principle but it's an important one," Ansley Jemison, the team's general manager, told The Independent yesterday. "We are recognised as a sovereign nation by the FIL [Federation of International Lacrosse] and have always travelled on our own passports. That's a line we don't want to cross."

Rather than acclimatise to the comparatively chilly confines of Manchester, the team's 23 players and staff have instead had to hole up in a Manhattan hotel while a storm of controversy envelops their tournament. "There's a lot of frustration but we're hanging on in there," Jemison said. "We're going to head down to the airport again later this afternoon and hopefully it will be good news."

Britain's refusal to grant the Nationals their visas has inadvertently thrown the Obama administration headlong into a conflict with Native Americans, a community that he has done more to represent and promote than any other recent president.

Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, has written to fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton asking why the Nationals were unable to travel on a passport used for 30 years.

"As a governor of a state with a significant Native American population, I know many tribes and pueblos will watch carefully how these young competitors are treated by the administration," he wrote. "As a signator of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which includes the freedom to travel and return, I believe we have an obligation to assure these young men's rights are protected."

Organisers of the tournament have privately expressed their frustration that the British consulate refused to handle Iroquois travel documents.

"It may be the Americans who are holding things up at the moment but it was British officiousness that started it all," said one official. "The idea that the Americans would turn around at the end of the tournament and say, 'Sorry, we can't let you back into the country' is absurd."

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of one of the Iroquois clans, was equally scathing. "It's just not going to happen that the indigenous people of North American are going to be blocked from returning to our own territory," she said.

The Home Office remains unmoved by the Iroquois' pleas. Last night a spokesperson reiterated that only those with a valid travel document will be granted entry to the UK. "The [Iroquois] passport is not internationally recognised as a valid air travel document," he added.

Other team members find it hard to understand why the US State Department has taken such a hard line. "This is our home and we would never endanger it," said Denise Waterman, a member of the team's board of directors. "If [only] we had a phone call from the State Department just to reaffirm, 'Yes, we're proud of them, we'll welcome them back.' It would be nice to know they'd be supportive of us."