No one knows for sure how the tribe's extraordinary act of generosity came about
No one knows for sure how the tribe's extraordinary act of generosity came about

How a displaced Native American tribe helped ease starvation in the Irish famine

The Choctaw Nation of American Indians suffered great losses in the 19th century – but hearing of starvation in Ireland, they gathered what they could to help

Padraig Kirwan
Monday 03 September 2018 15:53
Comments

In the winter of 1847, the people of Ireland were suffering from a devastating famine. Meanwhile, members of the Choctaw Nation of American Indians, one of the five great southern tribes of the United States, met in a small town in Indian Territory called Skullyville. There, members of the tribe discussed the experiences of the Irish poor. It was proposed that they would gather what monies they could spare. This wasn’t going to be much in the wake of their recent removal from their tribal homelands east of the Mississippi River.

Ultimately, they collected $170, a sum roughly equivalent to $5,000 (£3,900) today. Rather than use what money they had to buy badly needed resources in the new territory – land, food, housing, and so on – the tribe made the altogether remarkable decision to send a goodly portion of their money to those who were starving and destitute in Ireland.

There was an unprecedented global response to the Irish Famine of 1845-52, and aid came from many sources. But the fact that the Choctaws had suffered great losses in the early decades of the 19th century makes their donation particularly marvellous. In those years, the tribe had endured displacement, poverty and untold hardship. Virtually all of this had been caused by their removal from their ancestral lands following the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830.

Of course, Ireland, the destination for the charitable gift, was also a site of great hardship. This was the worst famine that was to befall any European country in the 19th century. The blight that decimated the potato crop in 1845 was a calamity of huge proportions; a million people died and at least a million more emigrated.

The famine in Ireland occurred when the potato crop failed in successive years

Choctaw charity

What, we might ask, led to the Choctaw peoples’ particularly affecting instance of generosity? The historian Turtle Bunbury has credited Major William Armstrong with gathering the collection at Skullyville. Armstrong, who was of Scots-Irish descent and had been appointed special agent and superintendent of the removal of the Choctaws from their homes east of the Mississippi River in 1832, may well have spoken of Ireland’s plight.

But it seems more likely that the task of calling the meeting would have fallen instead to one of the 27 elected representatives who made up the Choctaw general council, or one of the executive department’s three district chiefs. Those tribal leaders possibly heard about the Irish famine from recently settled Irish immigrants or religious missionaries.

The Choctaw’s extraordinary act of charity has a lot to say about contemporary philanthropy and nation-to-nation relationships. To those of us alive today, it is a salient reminder that we live in an interlinked global village. We might read it as a true moment of cross-cultural interaction, championing the power and importance of true selflessness and solidarity. LeAnne Howe from the University of Georgia, reminds us of that fact when she notes that the word “ima”, which means “to give” in the Choctaw language, carries the connotes that there are “no strings attached”.

Of course, the tribe’s concern for the people of Ireland might also be viewed in terms of diplomacy and perhaps even deliberateness. The monies gathered in Skullyville became, in many respects, emblematic of the Choctaw’s continued autonomy, strength and robustness; it was a sign of their endurance and moral strength.

The 'Kindred Spirits' sculpture in County Cork commemorates the Choctaw Nation's donation 

Looking back

In any event, it is important that we remember not only the generosity shown by the tribe, but also the Irish people’s great need at that time. Speaking in 2002, at the official dedication of the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York, the thn Irish president Mary McAleese described Ireland as “a first world nation with a third world memory” (echoing Irish academic Luke Gibbons). McAleese’s words underlined the manner in which our values and ideals in the present moment, as well as our ability to map new futures, are influenced by our understanding of history.

It is in that spirit, I believe, that Ireland recently sought membership of the United Nations Security Council. On the whole, the Irish see themselves as obligated rather than entitled. America’s tribal peoples often see themselves in the same light; connected and compelled to think both globally and connectedly as well as locally and collectively. Jodi Byrd has written a wonderful precis of this metaphoric cosmos or worldview as it is held by her tribe, the Chickasaw. The Chickasaw are closely linked to the Choctaw, and their jurisdictional territory includes 7,648 square miles of south-central Oklahoma. Byrd explains that her community "locates itself initially within the particularities of Chickasaw and Choctaw structures of relationality and governance, and from there it looks out towards a region, a hemisphere – to a world".

Views of this kind are sorely needed in our world today, especially when international politicians such as Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, and US president Donald Trump are employing the rhetoric of discrimination and illiberality to further their political ends.

By remembering the great hunger and the Choctaw’s gift, Irish people such as myself are reminded of our reliance on others in the past and our good fortune now. And we might all be reminded of the importance of tolerance, acceptance, empathy and dialogue between culturally distinct communities.

Padraig Kirwan is a senior lecturer in the literature of the Americas at Goldsmiths, University of London. This article first appeared on TheConversation.com

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in