Moved by news of starvation in Ireland, a group of Choctaws gathered in Scullyville, Ok, to raise a relief fund. Despite their meager resources, they collected $170 and forwarded it to a U.S. famine relief organisation.
The Choctaw Indians may have seen echoes of their own fate in that of the Irish. Just 16 years before, in 1831, the Choctaw Indians were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in Mississippi to what is now known as Oklahoma on a forced march known as the Trail of Tears. Starving, freezing, many died.
Now the Irish were suffering a similar fate. In the fall of 1845, the potato blight in Ireland began. By 1847, there was massive death and starvation. The Irish were only permitted potatoes by the English authorities, and when the potatoes perished, so did they. As many as a quarter of the Irish population either starved or immigrated under the worst of circumstances. Many of those who left Ireland never arrived at their destination. Ships were known as ‘coffin ships.’
British colonial policies before and during the crisis exacerbated the effects of the potato blight, leading to mass death by starvation and disease. For example, in March of 1847, at the time of the Choctaw donation, 734,000 starving Irish people were forced to labour in public works projects in order to receive food. Little wonder that survivors referred to the year as ‘Black ’47.’ What potatoes were harvested were shipped, by the English, outside of Ireland. There is certainly no doubt about whether these acts were intentionally genocidal, the same questions that apply to the US policy driving the Removal Act which led to the Trail of Tears.
The Choctaw people reached deep into their own pockets and cumulatively came up with $170 to contribute to the plight of the Irish, who, by the way, never forgot their generosity. It’s ironic that President Andrew Jackson (whose parents emigrated from Antrim) seized the fertile lands of the five civilized tribes (Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek [Muskogee], Seminole, and Choctaw) and forced them to undertake that harrowing 500-mile trek to Oklahoma. Of the 21,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. This despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans. By 1840, tens of thousands of Native Americans had been driven off of their land in the southeastern states and forced to move across the Mississippi to Indian territory. The federal government promised that their new land would remain unmolested forever, but as the line of white settlement pushed westward, ‘Indian country’ shrank and shrank. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and Indian territory was gone for good.
Perhaps their sympathy stemmed from their recognition of the similarities between the experiences of the Irish and Choctaw. Certainly contemporary Choctaw see it that way. They note that both groups were victims of conquest that led to loss of property, forced migration and exile, mass starvation, and cultural suppression (most notably language).
Increased attention to the ‘An Gorta Mor’ in recent years has led to renewed recognition of the Choctaw donation. In 1990, a delegation of Choctaw officials was invited to participate in an annual walk in Co Mayo commemorating a tragic starvation march that occurred during the ‘An Gorta Mór’. In honour of the special guests, the organisers (Action From Ireland, or AFRI) named the march The Trail of Tears. Two years later, two dozen people from Ireland came to the U.S. and retraced the 500-mile Trail of Tears from Oklahoma to Mississippi. That same year the Choctaw tribe made Ireland’s president, Mary Robinson, a honorary chief.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma in March 2018 and announced a new scholarship program to thank their people for the aid they sent during the Great Hunger.
Image | ‘Kindred Spirits’ Monument of nine eagle feather towering twenty feet into the air, was made by sculptor Alex Pentek, Bailic Park, Midleton, Co Cork. This monument represents a time of great instability, but it also represents a great moment of compassion, strength and unity.