How a Native American Tribe’s simple gift of kindness to the Irish People is still reaping benefits over 170 years later.
Not much attention has been placed so far on Covid-19’s impact on the Native American population. Sadly, several reservations have seen severe outbreaks. The Navajo Nation has been hit especially hard with almost 3000 active cases and around 100 deaths. They have received almost no Federal Assistance. Like many in the United States, the Tribe has established a GoFundMe page to help with those needing financial help. While many kind Americans have contributed to the page, many of the donations are coming from Ireland. While at first glance this may seem unusual, to the Irish, it is a way of repaying an act of kindness.
The goodwill between the Irish and the native Americans goes back centuries. In the late 1840s, Ireland was in the grips of a severe famine. The Potato originally a new world food was introduced in Ireland during the 16th Century. The plant grew well in the thin and somewhat rocky soil there. While originally used as a supplemental food, potatoes became the primary diet as the English landlords began taking more land for cattle. The meat was sent to England so the Irish had to make do with potatoes as a primary source of calories. Potatoes became the de facto currency for the poor. This was called the cottier system and provided a ‘potato’ wage instead of a cash salary.
In the 1840’s Ireland was ravaged by a Potato Blight. Up to 75% of the crop failed by 1846 and most of the island’s poor were starving and destitute. Most of the scant amount of food being produced was shipped to England. Furthermore, since peasants were no longer able to produce crops, their landlords evicted them. Many of the starving were forced to march to the cities to beg. Others marched to their landlord’s homes often many miles away, hoping in vain for assistance. Those who were strong enough to leave did so. Almost 25% of Ireland’s population emigrated to Canada, The US, and Australia. Many of those that remained faced a dire future of disease, starvation, and death. by the famines end in 1850, over a million Irish had died and another million had left Ireland never to return.
Across the Atlantic, about twenty years earlier, the native American Choctaw Nation had also faced adversity. The Choctaw were evicted from their ancestral homes in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida and forced to march 500 miles west to Oklahoma. This forced migration was called “The Trail of Tears” The Choctaw and several other tribes who were forced to March westward, was not adequately provided with food or clothing. In total, almost 100,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed and about 25,000 died fro starvation and exhaustion during the march.
For many, such travails can cause a heart to turn cold. But for some, such challenges can make a person more compassionate. They choose to nurture a resolution to do whatever possible to ameliorate the suffering of others. It has been reported that members of the Choctaw tribe heard of the difficulties in Ireland through Irish-American soldiers and felt a kinship with them. Like the Irish, the Choctaw were forced to live in poverty. The Native Americans like the Irish had been forced off their farms and made to live in squalor.
While they had so little to give, the Choctaw people sent $170.00 (about $5,000.00 today) to help the Irish people. The donation would mean deprivation for the tribe, but in their hearts, they felt it was the right choice. The Choctaw have a concept in their native language called “Ima”. Ima teaches that if you are made aware of a problem and you have the means to help, you are obligated to do so. They knew suffering themselves and were determined to ease the pain of others. The act of solidarity has never been forgotten by the Irish, and today they are returning the kindness. The money was sent to the Quakers who were able to use the funds to provide food, blankets, and housing for the afflicted.
In 2017, the Irish town of Midleton unveiled a sculpture of eagle feathers in a circle. The eagle feather is used in Choctaw religious ceremonies and the circle is a sign of friendship. The nation of Ireland also has a scholarship program for Choctaw students to come to Ireland to study. While the Navajo were not part of the original gift. News of the suffering of the Navajo has resulted in a tremendous outpouring of support from the Irish. Over half a million of the two million dollars raised dollars have come directly from Ireland.
Many of the Irish people who have donated to the Gofundme page for the Navajo relief has made direct references to the gift of the Choctaw and how they are honored to pay it forward. For their part, the Navajo have been touched by the largesse of the Irish to their plight. to quote the page’s organizer:
“We have lost so many of our sacred Navajo elders and youth to COVID-19. It is truly devastating. And a dark time in history for our Nation,” the organizers write. “In moments like these, we are so grateful for the love and support we have received from all around the world. Acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness. Thank you, IRELAND, for showing solidarity and being here for us.”
A Hindu philosopher whose name I have forgotten because it was too difficult to remember said that our actions are like echos. Our actions, the kind and the cruel, reverberate indefinitely through time. As someone who has both Irish and (distant) Native American heritage, it warms my heart to see the echos of a long distant kindness bring help and comfort to those in need.
If you would like to help out, here is the link to the Navajo and Hopi Tribes Gofundme page.