Sixteen years after they arrived in what is now Oklahoma, the Choctaws tried to rebuild their lives. At a tribal meeting, they heard of families struggling to survive Ireland’s infamous Potato Famine. They took up a collection, pooled together $170 and sent it to a group collecting money in New York.
Fast-forward to the worst pandemic in modern times: The Irish are repaying the generosity they received two centuries earlier from Native Americans.
About 24,000 donors from Ireland have given roughly $820,000 in an online fundraiser operated by Native American volunteers to buy food and supplies for families on the Hopi and Navajo reservations in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. On the Navajo Nation, the pandemic has struck the reservation, with more than 3,200 infections and 102 deaths as of Monday. Thirty Hopi tribal members have tested positive for the virus at a local health clinic.
Money donated by the Irish is part of $3.6 million that’s been raised to help about 4,300 Hopi and Navajo households. The boxes of food go to those who are raising grandkids, have underlying health conditions or those who are positive for the coronavirus or might be positive.
For many of the Irish, it’s about giving back after the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma helped their ancestors in the spring of 1847.
The Potato Famine was unfolding in Ireland. People were starving. The Choctaws heard of the plight at a tribal meeting in Skullyville, Okla., where a letter was read through an interpreter from the Memphis Irish Relief Committee, a group collecting donations that was part of a larger New York-based outfit, according to Choctaw historians.
The letter “adverted to the condition of Ireland,” according to an April 3, 1847, article in the Arkansas Intelligencer newspaper. It spoke of “‘Old Erin,' as men of Irish feeling and Irish blood alone can speak,” but " … it was not words she wanted but substantial food.”
A list of Choctaws willing to donate was started, according to the article, and “in a short time $170 were subscribed and paid.” The donations, Choctaw historians said, were given anonymously. Their donation arrived at Society of Friends in Dublin, which worked to get food to those in need.
The Arkansas Intelligencer article said the Choctaws “knew nothing more, cared for nothing more, than the fact, that across the Big Water, there were thousands of human beings starving to death.” It went on to say, “Is not this a sublime spectacle? The Red man of the ‘New,' bestowing alms upon the people of the Old world!”
A May 1, 1847, article in the Niles Register news magazine told of the Choctaws’ donation in a story headlined, “Famine in Europe.” One line read, “the ‘poor Indian’ sending his mite to the poor Irish!”
Later that month, a letter from New York politician Myndert van Schaick to the Society of Friends told of $144,000 collected for the “famishing and dying people” of Ireland. Van Schaick also served as chairman of the General Irish Relief Committee of New York.
He wrote that $170 had come from “our red brethren of the Choctaw nation. Even those distant men have felt the force of Christian sympathy and benevolence, and have given their cheerful aid in this good cause, though they are separated from you by miles of land and an ocean’s breadth.”
Judy Allen, a historic projects officer for the Choctaw Nation, said her ancestors showed “great empathy and compassion.” The plight of the Irish had them “immediately reaching deep into their pockets for what little they had,” she said.
The $170 donation was “a great amount of money,” Allen said, about $5,000 in today’s dollars.
Waylon Gary White Deer, a Choctaw author and artist, said the Irish story of suffering likely resonated with his tribe. He said the Choctaws heard “about a people who lived far away but were enduring the same kind of hardships and deaths they had just endured in the Trail of Tears.”
The Choctaws and the Irish have memorialized the story of generosity. In 2017, the Choctaws’ chief went to Midleton, Ireland, for the dedication of a sculpture that was created by Irish artist Alex Pentek to honor the donation the Choctaws gave. Called “Kindred Spirits,” it stands 20 feet tall and has stainless steel eagle feathers in a circle to represent a bowl of food.
Some of the Irish who donated to the covid relief fund recalled the elements of shared history between the two groups.
Donor Sean Browne wrote on the fundraising group’s GoFundMe page, “I am a grateful Irishman. Thank you to the Choctaw nation for their humanity in Ireland’s darkest days.” Another donor, Patrick Caffrey, wrote, “From Ireland … a kindness returned with remembrance, gratitude and solidarity.”
Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said he is pleased to see Native Americans being helped. He said the Choctaws don’t need help from the fundraiser, as the tribe has been able to help members from its own endowments.
“It’s heartwarming the Irish are remembering what our tribal ancestors did and they’re showing the Choctaw spirit of love and grace in reaching out to help our Hopi and Navajo brothers and sisters,” Batton said.
Ethel Branch, who started the fundraiser, said she was surprised at the outpouring of support.
“One hundred seventy years later for this issue to resonate with the Irish is a testament to their kind heartedness and generosity,” she said. “Native American issues often go disregarded or are ignored. For this to register with anyone and for it to register overseas, this is amazing.”
Branch, a former Navajo Nation attorney general, started the fundraiser after becoming worried while shopping for her mother — who lives without running water or electricity on the Navajo reservation — that the pandemic could spur a food shortage and people would risk exposure driving long distances searching for food.
As donations poured in, organizers bought tractor-trailer loads of meat, milk, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, dry goods, and cleaning and personal hygiene items.
The group oversees complex logistics of operating under stay-at-home orders and curfews to get goods delivered to remote sites on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Teams of community leaders and volunteers unload, sanitize and repackage the food before families pick up enough items to last two weeks.
Native American communities on reservations are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus, as many live in poverty or in homes crowded with several generations, including the elderly. There also are high rates of asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
On the Hopi reservation in northeast Arizona, where roughly 9,000 tribal members live, $25,000 worth of food from the fundraiser recently fed its hardest-hit residents.
“It is extremely crucial,” said Monica Nuvamsa, who runs the Hopi Foundation.
The donations are a moment many Native Americans are hoping will be remembered.
“We have a tradition among Choctaw people that when you feed someone you’re extending human life,” said White Deer. “That’s one of the best things you can do for someone."
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