Dublin • More than 170 years ago, the Choctaw Nation sent $170 to starving Irish families during the potato famine. A sculpture in County Cork commemorates the generosity of the tribe, itself poor. In recent decades, ties between Ireland and the Native American tribe have grown.
Now hundreds of Irish people are repaying that old kindness, giving to a charity drive for two Native American tribes suffering in the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Tuesday, the fundraiser has raised more than $1.8 million to help supply clean water, food and health supplies to people in the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, with hundreds of thousands of dollars coming from Irish donors, according to the organizers.
Many donors cited the generosity of the Choctaws, noting that the gift came not long after the U.S. government forcibly relocated the tribe and several other American Indian groups from the Southeastern United States, a march across thousands of miles known as the Trail of Tears that left thousands of people dead along the way.
“I’d already known what the Choctaw did in the famine, so short a time after they’d been through the Trail of Tears,” Sean Callahan, 43, an Apple administrator in Cork City who made a donation, said Tuesday. “It always struck me for its kindness and generosity and I see that too in the Irish people. It seemed the right time to try and pay it back in kind.”
On Sunday the organizers wrote in praise of “acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness.
“Thank you, IRELAND, for showing solidarity and being here for us,” one said on the GoFundMe page.
Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation Oklahoma, said in a statement Tuesday that the tribe was “gratified — and perhaps not at all surprised — to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi Nations.”
“We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish potato famine,” he said. “We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have.”
Cassandra Begay, communications director for the fundraiser, said in an interview on Tuesday that Irish people appeared to have found the charity effort through posts on Twitter, including one on May 2 from a reporter at The Irish Times, Naomi O’Leary. Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation, said over the past 48 hours, more than $500,000 had been donated, with most of the money coming from Ireland.
“The Choctaw ancestors planted that seed a long time ago, based off the same fundamental belief of helping someone else,” Begay said. “It is a dark time for us. The support from Ireland, another country, is phenomenal.”
News of the donations from Ireland came as the coronavirus has been ripping through tribal lands. The Navajo Nation has had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States. There had been more than 2,700 cases and 70 deaths as of Monday, according to the Navajo Nation.
A high prevalence of diseases like diabetes, scarcity of running water and homes with several generations living under the same roof have enabled the virus to spread with exceptional speed in places like the Navajo Nation, according to epidemiologists. The Hopi reservation is surrounded by the Navajo Nation.
It is not surprising that the ordeals of Native American tribes resonate in Ireland. It is estimated that 1 million Irish people, mainly poor tenant subsistence farmers, died of hunger or disease from 1845 to 1849, and another 1 million emigrated in that period or shortly afterward.
The famine was among the first humanitarian crises to be reported in the early days of global media, which helped spur donations to Ireland from around the world. In addition to the donation from the Choctaw, money was raised from prisoners in Sing Sing, former slaves in the Caribbean and convicts on a prison ship in London.
Choctaw people were the first tribe to be relocated during the Trail of Tears, starting in 1831, with thousands dying and many starving.
Years later, the Choctaws learned of the Irish potato famine and “a great empathy was felt when they heard such a similar tale coming from across the ocean,” according to the Choctaw Nation’s description of its bond with the Irish.
Choctaw people then gathered together $170 to send to Irish people in 1847, the equivalent of more than $5,000 today.
“When our ancestors heard of the famine and the hardship of the Irish people, they knew it was time to help,” Batton wrote in 2017.
The sculpture commemorating the Choctaws’ generosity was dedicated in 2017 in Midleton, Ireland.
Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian at University College Dublin and co-author, with writer Colm Toibin, of the book “The Irish Famine,” said that awareness of the Choctaw donation to Irish famine relief had increased sharply since the commemoration of the 150th anniversary in 1995.
The president of Ireland at the time, Mary Robinson, had visited the Choctaws in Oklahoma to thank them. Two years ago, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also paid them a visit.
“It showed how far the famine resonated that it reached people 4,000 miles away who had themselves recently suffered terrible deprivation and clearance from their land,” Ferriter said. “There is a belief that the famine has never been forgotten here, and it has made Irish people more likely to make common cause with other marginalized people.”
The money donated by the Choctaws was distributed in Ireland by members of the Quaker community, who are still remembered for their leading role in famine relief. More recently, Choctaw representatives have taken part in the annual Famine Walk in County Mayo, which commemorates a forced march in terrible weather by hundreds of starving people hoping for government relief.