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 tribes suffering in the COVID-19 pandemic. As of last week, 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, according to organizers, though it was not clear how much of the money has come from Irish donors.
Many donors cited the generosity of the Choctaws, noting that the gift came not long after the U.S. government forcibly moved 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," said Sean Callahan, 43, an Apple administrator in Cork City who made a donation. "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."
The organizers wrote in praise of "acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness."
Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation Oklahoma, said in a statement 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.
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 May 4, according to the Navajo Nation.
A high prevalence of diseases like diabetes, the 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.
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.