By Christian Toews
The Choctaw Nation and the people of Ireland have a long and storied history. Although separated by thousands of miles, these two nations are forever entwined because of a small act of kindness nearly two centuries ago.
In March of 1847, a group of Choctaw people met to raise money for the starving poor in Ireland. The Choctaw people had received word about the dire situation of the Great Potato Famine and simply could not stand by and not help. The Choctaws pooled together $170 which was sent first to the Memphis Irish Relief Committee, then to the General Irish Relief Committee of the City of New York. The $170 would be worth around $5,000 in today’s economy.
During the Great Potato Famine, more than a million people died in Ireland when their potato crops were decimated. Another two million left the country when the potato crops failed in successive years. Potatoes served as a primary food source for almost half the population but primarily the rural poor. The gift from the Choctaw Nation directly impacted the survival of many in Ireland.
The Choctaw Nation’s gift was recognized as extraordinary even at that time. The chairman of the New York committee specifically mentioned it in reports to the Central Relief Committee in Ireland.
The gift to the Irish people was significant, considering the Choctaw people had recently been forced to walk the Trail of Tears between 1831 and 1833.
Choctaws were the first of the large southeastern tribes relocated under the Indian Removal Act. Around 20,000 Choctaw people set out on the journey to Oklahoma from their traditional homelands east of the Mississippi River. Historians estimate that 4,000 Choctaws died along the way.
The Irish people have never forgotten the kindness of the Choctaws in 1847. In 1992, a group of Irish men and women walked the 600-mile Trail of Tears. The walk raised $170,000 that went toward famine relief in Somalia.
In 1995, Irish President Mary Robinson, later UN Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She used the visit to thank the Choctaws for their generosity toward the Irish. Robinson commented on the extraordinary act of kindness from the Choctaws, saying, “Thousands of miles away, in no way linked to the Choctaw Nation until then, the only link being a common humanity, a common sense of another people suffering as the Choctaw Nation had suffered when being removed from their tribal land.”
The charitable attitude of the Choctaw Nation is a theme that continues today. In times of crisis, the Choctaw Nation has been there. In 2001, Choctaw people made a huge contribution to the Firefighters Fund after the Twin Towers attack in New York City and have since made major contributions to Save the Children and the Red Cross for tsunami relief in 2004, again in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina relief, for victims of the Haiti earthquake, and most recently for people affected by hurricanes in Houston, Puerto Rico, and Florida.
The generosity of the Choctaw Nation does not stop at humanitarian organizations and funds. The Nation received the United States National Freedom Award in 2008 for the efforts made in support of members of the National Guard and Reserve and their families. The Choctaw Nation also had a 2.4 billion-dollar impact on the State of Oklahoma’s economy in 2018 alone. There are countless stories of Choctaw individuals who have helped their neighbors in need over the Nation’s long history.
The Irish people were so touched by the donation they received in 1847 that the people of County Cork commissioned a sculpture to the Choctaw Nation in 2015. A delegation of Choctaw people including current Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr. attended the dedication of the monument in 2017.
The sculpture, created by artist Alex Pentek, is named “Kindred Spirits” and features nine eagle feathers. “This monument represents this time of great instability,” Pentek explained in an interview with The Oklahoman. “But it also represents this great moment of compassion, strength and unity.”
Pentek told the BBC that the 6-meter-tall feathers are all unique “as a sign of respect” and that they represent the feathers used in Choctaw ceremonies. These feathers are arranged in a circle, creating the shape of an empty bowl that symbolizes the hunger suffered by Irish people in the famine.
Irish Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaw Nation in March of 2018. During his visit he announced a new scholarship program that will allow members of the Choctaw Nation to study in Ireland. This scholarship program began in 2019, and Jessica Militante was the first Chahta Foundation joint-sponsored scholar to Ireland.
“I am the first recipient of the Choctaw Ireland Scholarship, which was created to commemorate the beautiful connection between the Choctaw and Irish people. Ireland is showing that same generosity and love for the Choctaw Nation with this scholarship, which is allowing me to study for my master’s in creative writing here at UCC,” she said in an article she wrote for the Irish news source EchoLive.ie.
In January, The Choctaw Nation hosted the Irish folk band RUNA at their headquarters in Durant. RUNA visited the Choctaw Nation in an effort to learn more about the culture and the historical connection between Ireland and the Choctaw Nation. They intend to write a song, and possibly an album, based on the cultural connection between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish people. They spent the day participating in traditional dancing, sampling traditional food, listening to stories about Choctaw heritage and sharing stories about Irish heritage.
The connection between the Irish people and the Choctaw Nation shows that a simple act of kindness can bring nations together. Chief Gary Batton commented on the tradition of the Choctaw Nation’s spirit of giving, saying, “We are committed to continuing the legacy of generosity our ancestors began in the 1800’s. We want to continue to help our tribal members, the state of Oklahoma, and the world.”