Fr Kevin Hegarty
In a well-researched book ‘Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland’, Christine Kinealy documents the worldwide charitable response to the Irish famine of the 1840s. Donors included Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
There were significant contributions from Queen Victoria, the Sultan of Turkey, the President of the United States and Pope Pius IX. What strikes an emotional chord, however, are the donations from the poor and marginalised, including the Choctaw Native Americans, former slaves in the Caribbean and English prisoners.
The generosity of the Choctaw Native Americans has come to light again because of the Covid-19 crisis. Two Native American tribes are in trouble. They live in the Hopi and Navajo reservations that span parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico in the South Western United States. The pandemic has hit them hard. In a population of 170,000 they have had 2,700 cases of the virus and 73 deaths.
They fear that the peak of the infection has yet to materialise. Living conditions in the reservation are inadequate and providing a fertile breeding ground for the spread of the virus. They had only 13 grocery stores for a region bigger than the Irish Republic. They have only 170 hospital beds. One third of the homes do not have running water. Uranium mining has polluted the ground water.
In order to provide food, water, soap and cleaning supplies, their leaders launched an online campaign in the hope of creating a fund of a million-and-a-half dollars.
Already, they have exceeded their target. According to Cassandra Begay, communications director for the fundraiser, donations from Ireland have been ‘phenomenal’. Comments from many of the Irish donors indicate that they have recalled the Choctaw contribution to Irish famine victims and it has inspired them to respond to the current campaign.
Sean Callahan, an Apple administrator in Cork, stated: “I’d already known what the Choctaw did in the Famine, so short a time after they’d been through the Trail of Tears. It always struck me for its kindness and generosity. It seemed the right time to try and pay it back in kind.”
The Choctaw historical experience has echoes of the Irish story. Just as the native Irish were ordered ‘to Hell or to Connacht’ in the Cromwellian plantation in the 17th century, the Choctaws, under the Indian Removal Act of 1831 if they wished to retain their autonomy had to leave their ancestral lands in the Mississippi and relocate in Oklahoma. Over 15,000 walked to their new destination in a march that became known as the Trail of Tears. Up to 4,000 people died on route.
In their new home they faced hostility. In a contemporary account, a member of the community said: “Our habitations were torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields, and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.”
At a meeting in Skullyville, Oklahoma, in 1847, the Choctaws were told of the Irish famine. Given their own social and economic circumstances it was optimistic to expect a generous response. Many Choctaw people were still making the arduous journey to the area, and many of those who had arrived were still grieving family members lost along the Trail of Tears. As the historian Anelise Hanson Shrout wrote: “Many would have experienced enormous financial, emotional and demographic damage as a result of removal. It is difficult to imagine people less well-positioned to act philanthropically.”
Yet respond they did. From their meagre resources they gathered $170, more than $5,000 in today’s money, for the beleaguered Irish people.
Relationships between Ireland and the Choctaw people have been copperfastened in recent years. An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mary Robinson as Irish President have been guests of the Choctaws in Oklahoma. Choctaws participated in the Doolough Famine Walk in 1992. In 2017 a sculpture, aptly entitled a sculpture, aptly entitled ‘Kindred Spirits’, commemorating the 1847 donation, was unveiled in Midleton, County Cork.
The sculpture, created by Alex Pentek, consists of nine 20-foot stainless-steel eagle feathers, no two feathers identical, forming a shape to represent a gift of a bowl of food.
Anyone wishing to donate to the Official Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund can do so here.