The Iroquois Lacrosse Team and Why I Hold Back on Reclaiming My Mohawk Rights

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Application to Restore My Mohawk Rights

I’ve watched with great interest and emotion this week as members of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team were denied entry to Britain to play in an international lacrosse tournament over a passport dispute.  The 23 members of the Iroquois Nationals – whose ancestors (and mine) helped invent the sport refused to use U.S. or Canadian passports and the U.K. will not recognize the ones issued by the Iroquois Confederacy. Click here for the full article on

The controversy over Iroquois team strikes an intensely personal note.  On this blog I’m exploring my family’s journey to reclaim our Mohawk rights (Mohawk are part of the Iroquois Confederacy) which my mother sold to the Canadian government in the 1980s.  Click here for the full story, called The Indian Thing, on how that was possible and why she sold her native rights.

Many who viewed my earlier post said they felt my own perspective was missing from my family’s discussion of our Mohawk heritage.  So recently my friend Robb Davis, an expert in participatory learning, took the time to interview me.

Out of that interview (among so MANY things) came the realization that while my sister has reclaimed her rights and other siblings are in the midst of applying, I’ve been holding back on going through the process because I am outraged that such a process even exists.  What right does ANY government have to tell me whether I am or am not Mohawk?  It is a terrifying thought – and the fact that my mother was able to sell our rights under a very destructive Canadian policy has always struck me as nothing less than diabolical.

How can our identities be so fragile?  So vulnerable?  How can I be called Mohawk one day and white the next ?  Then thirty years later how is it possible that I will be white one day and Mohawk the next? Just because I’ve filed some papers.  Doesn’t my application just confirm that I agree the State still defines who and what I am ?

I know, I know – the State defines who is a person when we are born.  It’s the same when we are issued a birth certificate, social security cards, passports, when we take the census.  I work with refugees – people who are not recognized by any government – so are confined, imprisoned really.  All the more reason I cannot reconcile this.  Just as the Iroquois soccer team probably cannot reconcile that their tribal papers hold no sway on an international stage (and possibly on the domestic front as well).

So I am sitting with The Indian Thing and my application for now… and proud of my Iroquois brothers for the sacrifice they’ve just made to bring attention to these very important questions.

Below is the rough cut video of Robb and I listening together to my mother and sister’s interview about our Mohawk rights. You can tell it’s an intense journey.  Over the remainder of the summer I’ll be editing the companion audio interview which contains more  insight (Robb is literally a professional listener).  I’ll post that here in its finished form.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these initial musings.

Music:  Creative Commons License:  Attribute/Not-for-Profit/Share Alike Diablo Swing Orchestra/Heroines



Filed under The Indian Thing: History. Identity. Family.

6 responses to “The Iroquois Lacrosse Team and Why I Hold Back on Reclaiming My Mohawk Rights

  1. This is intense territory, Paulette. Thank you for sharing this part of your family’s journey. Your reaction to applying for restoration of your Mohawk rights w/r/t legitimating the power of government soooooo resonates with some of my thoughts/experiences in the church. The whole “who has the power to legitimate identity” question is huge, and one that I think many people in the U.S. take for granted. This is a beautiful, powerful, and intensely personal unmasking of that question. Again: many thanks.

  2. Wow, Brian. I so appreciate your feedback. This subject leaves me absolutely shaken anytime I begin to deal with it. The territory is uncharted, emotional, irrational, often destructive. I’ve been trying to articulate this for years and have felt like a mute.

    The good part has come more recently – discovering the experience through my family and friends (like you), realizing how resonant the experience is in unexpected ways in other people’s lives. I’ve been using different forms of media – the non-verbal video interviews. The audio without pictures. Research as art… These are the good things.

    Can you tell me more about your experience with the church? Yes, I agree many in the U.S. take the identity issue for granted. Thank you for taking the time to reflect on this. Your insight is always welcome here.

  3. I can think of two things in relation to this question. One mostly historical and one more personal. First, I think of early Anabaptists in Europe in the 16th century who first counted the cost of adult baptism vs. infant baptism. At that point, infant baptism was not only a theologically significant event, it was a civic event. It’s how a particular principality knew it had a new citizen, a new person from which to withdraw support (economic, military, etc.). When Anabaptist made the theological move of saying “nuh uh” to infant baptism, this made the civic authorities very unhappy. You stop baptizing the babies, you lose your mark on your citizenry. So the state was very much in control of legitimating identity (membership) and did so through means of the church.

    Now the more personal one, fast-forwarded 500 years. I’m a licensed minister and now eligible to officiate wedding ceremonies, which I did for the first time this past March. The interesting thing for me in this situation was that the two friends whose wedding I was officiating are both outside of any church fellowship, so it was “secular” in a sense. But it was because of my “religious office” that was officially recognized by the state which allowed me perform the ceremony (more importantly to the state, sign the license). So in this case, do I actually thank the state which allowed me to perform this act of service to two dear friends? My buddy the corporate real estate broker wouldn’t have been able to do it. So there’s this weird church/state, religious/secular, friend/minister ambivalence that’s been tied up in my stomach since all this went down. What really matters to me is that I was able to do this for my friends. Screw what the state thinks about it…but thanks for legitimating it?

    I hope this doesn’t take this wonderful post of yours too far afield with my own rantings. Hopefully there’s some meaningful comparative analysis to be done with our particular narratives!

  4. Hi Brian – Not afield at all. What you describe in both of these examples is exactly what I am wrangling with right now.

    On one hand, I want to claim my Mohawk heritage. When my sister received her rights – I was so excited and couldn’t wait to get my process underway. She received a state-issued card that says she’s part of the tribe. That’s powerful stuff, especially in my family which I’ve often described as a photographic negative; we’ve spent more energy describing and defining what we are NOT rather than what we ARE mainly because of the shame associated with “The Indian Thing.” To be able to embrace that officially – what a relief.

    But then to realize that by receiving that card – I am then buying into this system that caused the family shame in the first place – yikes!! Some suggest I go ahead with reclaiming my rights – that having them will do more good for me and for the greater identity of the First Nations than not. You were of tremendous service to your friends by performing this precious ceremony for them. Someone state-sanctioned had to do it – how fortunate that you were there for them.

    I feel that this recent incident with the Iroquois lacrosse team is a moment to consider our systems and how much we buy into them. The anabaptists protested the systems (and still do!!!) in profound and ways that were/are dangerous culturally, socially and physically to them. They inspire me – as do you with your thoughtfulness around the system of which you are a part. So the discernment continues…

    Thank you again for walking through this – terrific feedback.

  5. Moi

    Hope you get the force to go through the bureaucratic representation of peoples definition. Whatever world they live in, you have always been Mohawk, you need no permission to call yourself so. The systems . . . protest it, but in numbers, from the Mohawk community.
    Question i always had: does this mean you can cross to Canada, your land, anytime without a US passport?

    Go, go and sign the forms!

    • Thanks Toi! This is helpful. I just get so outraged at these systems. I don’t know the answer to the question about crossing to Canada – I’ll ask Pam about that and post about it. I keep losing the forms, it’s hilarious. There is a rebellion there. I may go to N. Falls at the end of next week and just DO IT! Wish me luck. Thanks for the support. xopm

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