May 26, 2020

The Choctaw Tribe – The Covid-19 Virus and the Irish Famine

The painting (far right), “An Arrow Through Time", is the work of the distinguished Choctaw artist and author, Waylon Gary White Deer, a longstanding friend of our family and of my brother Don Mullan who, in 1989, began to raise the awareness of the Irish public to the story of the Choctaw Indians who raised money for the Irish Famine just 16 years after their own "Trail of Tears".

I remember this story so well.  I was a young teacher in Derry, Northern Ireland, and was always on the lookout for Global Stories to help our war-torn young people to look out and beyond the pain of the “Troubles” to find signs of a more compassionate common humanity -- our “better angels”.

I invited my brother Don to speak to our Mercy students in Thornhill College in Derry.  He was the Director of a Dublin-based human rights organization addressing the historical neglect of Ireland’s Great Famine, when over one million souls were consigned to unmarked mass graves.  It was during this talk that he told the students about how the Choctaw tribe had helped the poor Irish and encouraged the students to “look out” beyond our geographical world and the commonality of the human experience in oppression.  The Choctaw story aroused a great deal of interest among the students and, as a result, three busloads of students and staff (120 in total) travelled 160 miles to Doolough, Co. Mayo, in the western part of the island of Ireland in May 1990.  Tribal leaders from the Choctaw community led the Famine Walk commemorating a tragic walk undertaken by hundreds of destitute souls during Ireland’s Great Hunger.  At the beginning of the walk, the students, my mother and family watched as my brother was given a headdress of feathers and conferred with the title “Honorary Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma” in recognition of his contribution highlighting this remarkable story.

The 1990 Doolough walk adopted the name “The Trail of Tears”, which told the story of the 500-mile death march from Choctaw ancestral lands in Mississippi to Oklahoma.  The Choctaw were forced to make that journey in 1831 as a result of the US Government policy of Indian removal during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson (himself a son of Scots-Irish immigrants).  The “Five Civilized Tribes” inhabiting the Southeastern US (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole) were forced to move to the Oklahoma Territory, under pressure from white settlers who had encroached on their lands in violation of existing treaties.  The Choctaw were the first to depart.  Unprepared for the hardships of the journey, begun in December 1831 (one of the worst winters the South had seen), more than half the Choctaw population died of starvation, exposure and disease.  [Unscrupulous government contractors and soldiers who accompanied them on the trail compounded their great suffering and pain.]

In 1847, only 16 years after the beginning of Choctaw Removal in 1831, the Choctaw learned of the plight of the Irish people 4,000 miles away.  The Arkansas Intelligencer and Niles Weekly Register recorded a meeting in Skullyville (capital of the Choctaw Nation in the Oklahoma Territory), where a collection was taken to assist the victims of the Potato Famine in Ireland.  $170 was raised from meagre resources by the Choctaw for Irish famine relief.  The 1990 Doolough walk, listening to representatives of the Choctaw Nation tell their story, was a teachable moment for the students and a reminder that we share a common bond as human beings.  The young people were also exposed for the first time to the inherent decency of an Indian tribe instead of the “savages” so often documented in Cowboy and Indian movies!

The year before the walk, Don had travelled to Ada, Oklahoma, to thank the Choctaw for their humanity and to invite the leadership to lead the Famine Walk the following year.  It was the first time that anyone, since 1847, had connected with the Choctaw people to thank them.

Since then, the modern links between the Choctaw and the Irish have continued to grow.  As Irish President, Mary Robinson, who would later become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also travelled to Oklahoma in 1995, the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine (1845-1852) to thank the Choctaw people.  She too was given the title “Honorary Chief of the Choctaw Nation” and, subject to correction, remains the only woman so recognized in the history of the Choctaw.

On that occasion President Robinson said: “The pain and suffering and loss caused by the dreadful famine in Ireland nearly a century and a half ago, have created an indelible record in the memory of our nation.  We will always remember with gratitude, the compassion and concern displayed by the Choctaw Nation who, from their distant lands, sent assistance to the Irish people in our time of need.”

Photo of Kindred Spirits sculpture, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland [] CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2017, the monument “Kindred Spiritswas unveiled in Middleton, Co Cork, in the presence of Choctaw artist Gary White Deer.  Gary, a frequent visitor to our home in Derry since he loved our mother’s cooking, often remarked: “When we reach out to each other we will be feeding our own spirits as well.…  The Choctaw-Irish friendship can serve as an example for all people to reach out to others, for the trail of tears of one community leaves no people untouched.”

The destiny of two peoples had become intertwined and continues to do good today.  Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, this story has again surfaced onto Irish consciousness.  Little did we realize what the Choctaw story told when they led the Famine Walk in 1990 would awaken in the Irish worldwide.

On Monday, May 4, 2020, in response to the Navajo/Hopi Covid-19 Appeal, many of the donors recalling Choctaw generosity during the Great Famine reached out with reciprocal solidarity.

The Navajo/Hopi appeal was in response to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States.  Initially the GoFundMe appeal sought to raise US$1.5 million for vital equipment.  At the time of writing, that has been exceeded, with almost US$3 million raised, the majority from the Irish, and the target is now set at US$3.5 million.

The generosity of the Irish took the Navajo/Hopi leadership by surprise. They were unaware of the Choctaw-Ireland connection until the donations began to flood in.  Now the story has gone viral, with all major US networks and broadsheets covering it, as well as the BBC World Service.

In an article in The Irish Times, May 5, 2020, Naomi O’Leary writes:

“The list of donors to the GoFundMe page is dominated by Irish surnames, and many donors left comments to say they were giving in remembrance of Native American aid to Ireland during the Great Hunger… Many comments on the GoFundMe page referenced the Choctaw donation.  Some read “Ní neart go cur le chéile” - [There is no strength without unity] and others read simply “Ireland remembers”.  “173 years ago, the people of the Choctaw nation showed Ireland unimaginable generosity,” wrote donor Michael Foy.  “I am donating today in memory of our shared past, and to help overcome this crisis together – just as we did nearly two centuries ago.”

Cassandra Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation and one of the team organizing the fundraiser, told The Irish Times that she burst into tears as she saw the donations flood in.  “We noticed that we were getting a lot of donations from Ireland so we were wondering why... sorry, I get emotional talking about this part,” Ms Begay broke off.  “And I learned about what the Choctaw did for the Irish people, and it was so beautiful.”

The Choctaw-Irish Famine Covid-19 pandemic is a timely reminder that together we can heal each other!  And, as Jesus emphasised in the story of ten lepers (Luke 17: 11-19), it is also a reminder of the importance, and inherent power, in saying “Thank You”.

Messages to: Deirdre Mullan rsm

This article was published in Global Sisters Report on 26 May 2020 under the title
'Years of friendship continues between Choctaw Nation, Irish people'


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