4 leo

Irish dig deep for old friends

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaw Nation during his 2018 St. Patrick’s Day visit to the United States. Twitter photo via RollingNews.ie.


By Irish Echo Staff

Native Americans are being especially hard hit by Covid-19 and the Irish are responding with aid and comfort for a number of reasons, not least historical memory.

And Irish generosity towards the Navajo and Hopi peoples of the American West is now one of the better stories in a time of so many hard and sad ones.

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A fundraiser to help Native Americans fight one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States has taken off in Ireland, with donations flooding in to pay tribute to aid from the Choctaw tribe during the famine, the Irish Times reported.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in to the Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund since it began to go viral in Ireland, helping it burst through its target of $1.5 million (€1.3 million).

According to the Times report, 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.

That aid came from the Choctaw Nation. But what the Choctaw’s did for the Irish then is providing the spur for what the Irish are doing now for their kith and kin in the Navajo and Hope nations.

As then Echo columnist Edward O’Donnell wrote some years ago, on March 23, 1847, the Indians of the Choctaw nation took up a collection.

Moved by news of starvation in Ireland, a group of Choctaws gathered in Scullyville, Oklahoma, to raise a relief fund. Despite their meager resources, they collected $170 and forwarded it to a U.S. famine relief organization. It was both the most unlikely and the most generous contribution to the effort to relieve Ireland’s suffering.

The kindness and generosity of a people who were themselves stricken would never be forgotten.

As O’Donnell noted in what was a 2001 column: “Increased attention to the Great Famine in recent years has led to renewed recognition of the Choctaw donation.

“In 1990, a delegation of Choctaw officials was invited to participate in an annual walk in County Mayo commemorating a tragic starvation march that occurred during the Famine. In honor of the special guests, the organizers (Action From Ireland, or AFRI) named the march The Trail of Tears.

“Two years later, two dozen people from Ireland came to the U.S. and retraced the 500-mile Trail of Tears from Oklahoma to Mississippi. That same year the Choctaw tribe made Ireland’s president, Mary Robinson, an honorary chief.

“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these events is that while they commemorate dark chapters of the past, they are focused on the present and future. In other words, they seek to dramatize the need to stop starvation and suffering worldwide.

“As the plaque on Dublin’s Mansion House that honors the Choctaw contribution reads: ‘Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty.’”

What took on a renewed life in the 1990s has continued into a recent times and into today’s Covid-19 stricken world.

In 2017, the chief of the Choctaw Nation, Gary Batton, was honored by President Michael D. Higgins during Mr. Batton’s visit to Ireland, while during his 2018 St. Patrick’s Day visit to the U.S., Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was honored by the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

The generous response of the Irish in the crisis that is the Covid-19 pandemic has attracted global and U.S. national media coverage.

The website AZCENTRal, which covers Arizona, summed it up thus; “In what could be one of the ultimate cases of paying it forward, an online fundraising campaign to provide relief for Navajo and Hopi families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is benefiting from the actions of another U.S. tribe from more than 170 years ago.

“The Irish never forgot, as Choctaw Nation citizen Katosha Nakai said. When they heard news of how the two Northern Arizona tribes were struggling with health and economic woes amid the pandemic, they recalled the lesson learned all those years ago.

“What the Choctaws did back then was a lesson,” said Nakai. “And we understand suffering because of our experiences along the Trail of Tears and Blood. Our people had to literally use hatchets to cut through the forests. There was a lot of pain and death.”

As there is again today. But the bonds forged during Ireland’s hardest time never faded. On the contrary, they have been strengthened and are being brought to bear in a new time of pain and hardship.