The Sacred Bond Between The Irish and The Choctaw
Today is St. Patrick’s Day celebrated boisterously with beer, bagpipes, banter, and plenty of blarney. But, in the jubilation of the day, many will forget the troubled times the Irish people endured, especially the Irish famine of the 1840s that wiped out 1.4 million Irish men, women and children—and drove nearly two million more Irish from their beautiful land in order to survive. In the 1840s alone, Ireland lost almost a third of its population to starvation or emigration.
This same narrative is shared with many Native American tribes on our continent. Just as the 1847 famine is associated with the brutal displacement of the Irish, so too is the Trail of Tears associated with the persecution of Native Americans.
The Trail of Tears that took place throughout the 1830s—the decade before the Irish famine—involved a horrific diaspora of five Native American tribes—Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. About 45,000 Indians were taken from their ancestral lands and forced to march through blizzards, starvation, cholera, exhaustion, and terrible death rates. The Choctaw were the first to be removed from their land, and, between 1831 and 1833, about 20,000 Choctaw were forced on the brutal 1,000-mile journey. About 4,000—a fifth of their numbers—perished in the forced removals.
The Choctaw buried their dead in makeshift, unmarked graves on The Trail of Tears, leaving their lost loved ones behind in the desolate dirt. The Irish who survived starvation were put on “coffin ships” where the crowding, filth, cholera and typhus killed as many as 50% on the boats. The Irish were forced to dump their dead off the sides of the ship, leaving their loved ones behind in the deep dark depths of the sea.
When the Choctaw learned of the Irish people’s suffering, which they themselves had just experienced so recently, they were deeply moved. On March 23, 1847, Choctaw chiefs and others met in eastern Oklahoma to raise money for "the relief of the starving poor in Ireland." They collected $170—an immense amount at the time—even though their own people were extremely poor. Their funds were forwarded to the General Irish Relief Committee of New York. This gift was recognized as extraordinary by the chairman of the New York committee and noted specifically in reports to the Central Relief Committee in Ireland. The Irish never forgot the Choctaw’s gesture of humanity. The gift was the beginning of a deep and lasting bond between the Irish and the Choctaw tribe that flourishes yet today.
In 1992, a group of Irish men and women joined the Choctaw Tribe in retracing the Trail of Tears on foot and, together, raised $170,000—a thousand dollars for every dollar donated by the Choctaw people in 1847—for the famine-stricken children and families in Somalia during that horrific famine.
In 1995, Irish President Mary Robinson, who later became the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to thank them for their generosity to the Irish. She noted that they were bound by “a common humanity, a common sense of another people suffering as the Choctaw Nation had suffered when being removed from their tribal land."
Likewise, the Choctaw tribe were invited to Ireland in 1997 for the 150thanniversary of the Famine Walk. Irish President Robinson continued: “Earlier in the month I met one of the members of the tribe, the artist Gary White Deer,” she said. “He explained to me that taking part in that walk and remembering the past between the Choctaw Nation and Irish people and relinking our peoples is completing the circle. I have used that expression recently at a major conference on world hunger in New York. I spoke of the generosity of the Choctaw people and this idea of completing the circle.”
In 2015, a spectacular sculpture, called “Kindred Spirits,” was installed in Bailick Park in County Cork, commemorating the Choctaw gift. (County Cork was the largest port of departure for the Irish escaping the famine in the 1840s.) Made by Irish sculpture Alex Pentek, it consists of nine 20-foot tall stainless steel eagle feathers, no two alike, arranged in a circle to represent the Native American gift of a bowl of food. Then, in 2017, dozens from the Choctaw tribe, including Chief Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, joined Seamus BcGrath, Mayor of County Cork, and thousands of Irish people for its official dedication.
Also in 2017, Ireland established a large annual scholarship specifically for Choctaw students that includes full tuition and about $15,000 in living expenses at the University College Cork. The Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship was instituted “in recognition of the act of generosity and humanitarianism shown by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma towards the people of Ireland during the Great Famine of the mid-Nineteenth Century, and to foster and deepen the ties between the two nations today.”
In 2019, Choctaw student Jessica Militante from Oklahoma was the first recipient of the Choctaw Ireland Scholarship. In her essay written for the scholarship, Jessica began: “When I think of my Choctaw ancestors, the first word that comes to mind is resilient. My people are the embodiment of the word..... Resilient is also a word that I associate with my Irish ancestors....These two resilient nations of my ancestry came together in the most remarkable way.”
NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER wishes all of our readers a Happy St. Patrick’s Day. We leave you with these sayings from the Irish and Choctaw nations:
Éire go Brách! (Irish for “Ireland Forever!”)
Chim wa ilap bieka. (Choctaw for “You are not alone.”)
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