HUMANITARIAN

‘Kindred Spirits’: Repaying Kindness Between Ireland and Native America

Ellen McVeigh

18 May 2020

I n Bailick Park in Midleton, Cork there is a 20 ft memorial to a moment in history which sparked a friendship between two groups of oppressed people, a relationship which would continue for decades. In 1847 when the Great Famine reached its peak in Ireland and became one of the first humanitarian crises in the early days of globalised media, one group of people who found empathy for the plight of the Irish was the Native American nation of the Choctaws. 

 

Just a decade earlier, beginning in 1831, the Choctaws had become the first Native nation to be forcibly expelled from their native lands in Mississippi under the US government’s Indian Removal Act. The entire Choctaw Nation was forced, under threat of invasion, to make the 500-mile journey on foot from their ancestral lands in Mississippi to the newly established Indian Territory in Oklahoma; a journey that came to be known as the Trail of Tears, owing to the thousands of deaths occurring along the route. When the Choctaws learned of the Irish famine in the 1840s, they felt great empathy for the people of Ireland, seeing similarities between the adversities faced by these two colonised nations. The Choctaw people, an impoverished and oppressed nation themselves, managed to pull together $170 (the equivalent of around $5000 in today’s currency) to donate to Ireland in an act of exceptional solidarity. 

 

This act of kindness set in motion a friendship between Ireland and the Choctaw nation which has continued to this day. These two nations see their experiences with displacement, oppression and colonialism as bonding them together, despite the huge cultural and geographical distance between them. In 2005, Ireland donated money to repair the damage done to the Choctaws from Hurricane Katrina. The leftover funds from this hurricane relief were then donated by the Choctaws two years later to the Shell to Sea Campaign on the Irish coast in 2007. On his first US St Patrick’s Day visit in 2018, Leo Varadkar went to Oklahoma to visit the Choctaws and announce a new scholarship for Choctaw students attending Irish colleges.

 

In many ways the connection between Ireland and this Native American nation is an obvious alliance; two colonised nations who were forced to distance themselves from their ancient languages, traditions and often native lands. Parallels can be drawn not only between these two nations’ struggles for sovereignty but also in terms of the mythology and folklore which has been handed down through generations. Connections to the land, traditions surrounding death and afterlife, and seasonal rituals have permeated throughout the poetry and folklore of both nations to this day. Correlations between the two peoples, perhaps not entirely obvious at first, have contributed to the longstanding relationship based on empathy and recognition.

 

Fast forward to May 2020, and the coronavirus is causing widespread chaos and destruction across the globe. While some have characterised the virus as a ‘great leveller’, as the pandemic rages on it is becoming abundantly clear that the gaping divides in our societies are actually widening during the pandemic rather than shrinking. The Navajo Nation, in the south-eastern United States, are suffering from one of the worst outbreaks of coronavirus in the US, exposing the already dire conditions that many of their citizens had been living in for years. 

 

“In many ways the connection between Ireland and this Native American nation is an obvious alliance; two colonised nations who were forced to distance themselves from their ancient languages, traditions and often native lands.”

More than 30% of the Navajo Nation live without access to running water, making it difficult to maintain good hygiene; and due to both cultural norms and a lack of access to housing, there are often several generations living under the one roof. Add to this the huge prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes and lung disease, owing to decades of uranium exposure, generational traumas and other stressors associated with poor living conditions, and you have a perfect storm for an extensive spread of the virus in the community. The Navajo Nation is now experiencing the third largest outbreak of the coronavirus in the US, third only to New York and New Jersey. As of the 11th May, they reported having 3,204 cases and 102 deaths, with these numbers rising every day. 

 

While waiting for resources from the federal US government which eventually arrived six weeks late, the Navajo Nation took to GoFundMe to raise the funds needed for vital resources to combat the spread of the virus. As the Navajos reached out for assistance to their neighbours across the US, their story reached a group of people for whom this call for help really touched an empathetic nerve. Just as in 1847, the Choctaw people were moved by stories of the Irish famine; thanks to highlighting by the Irish Times journalist Naomi O’Leary, and propped up by Irish celebrities like Blindboy Boatclub, the news of the Navajo Nation’s struggles reached Ireland. 

 

At time of writing, the GoFundMe for the Navajo Nation is standing at just over $3 million out of their $5 million target, and when looking through the names of the donors, an incredible story of historic cooperation unfolds. As the donations from O’Connors, Mannions, Kellys, O’Tooles, Doyles, Gallaghers and Murphys came pouring in to the fundraising campaign; it was clear from the messages attached to the donations that the Irish people had not forgotten the generosity that the Choctaw nation had shown to them in their hour of need. An update from the organisers of the page acknowledged this “beautiful act of solidarity from [their] friends in Ireland”, and the special relationship that had been formed with the Choctaw people in the 1840s. The chief of the Choctaw nation, Gary Batton, said that the tribe was “gratified” that the Irish were giving this generous assistance to the Navajo people.

 

While the pandemic rages on, and many are feeling helpless to make a difference to protect some of the most vulnerable from this terrifying virus; it is important to focus on stories like this of international solidarity and cooperation. The generosity of both the Choctaws in 1847 and the Irish in 2020, tells a beautiful story of the impact that friendship and small acts of kindness can have to give hope to people in a difficult moment in history. The capacity for human beings to care so deeply for people who live thousands of miles away and who they will likely never meet is exactly the empathy that is going to get us through this pandemic and out the other side.

 

 

Featured photo by Gavin Sheridan

 

 

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