Ireland’s relationship with the United States runs deep. The Irish ancestry of many senior American political figures, up to and including the highest office in the land, is well documented. However if there is one relationship that is underrated, it is with the North American Indians, particularly the Choctaw people. This is not a relationship forged by familial ties or shared blood, but rather by a sense of shared experience.
Native Americans are a dispossessed people, pushed to the margins in their own country by English-speaking outsiders, their places re-named, culture suppressed almost to the point of invisibility, languages obliterated, economic condition ravaged, and population decimated.
There is much in that experience to which the Irish can relate. Ireland’s Great Hunger was no natural disaster and was not the result of any food shortage—the country was a net exporter of food at the time. What turned out to be deadly was an idea. One Thomas Robert Malthus, an English cleric and scholar, had postulated that growth in food production initially improved a nation’s well-being, but it also led to population growth that would eventually cancel out any gains in per-capita food production. Famine, in his view, was an inevitable act of God that would restore population to sustainable levels. The true danger of such half-baked ideas is the willingness of influential people to adopt them. While many in Britain set out to help the Irish since they knew that mass starvation was entirely preventable, the response of officialdom, tinged with a racist contempt for the Irish, was to let “nature” take its course. The consequences remain with us.
Also on the receiving end of racist attitudes driving a political agenda were the North American Indians in their various tribes. The Choctaw trace their origins to what is now Mississippi and parts of Alabama. According to legend the place of origin is a sacred hill called Nanih Waya (meaning “Productive Mound”) near what is now Noxapter, Mississippi. The 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was the last of nine treaties that saw Choctaws ceding over 23 million acres of land to the expansionist United States and their people moved to Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears, a long and arduous journey that many did not survive. In one episode, a thousand Choctaw emigrants were banished to the West by Greenwood LeFlore only for eighty of them to make it in starving condition. Four other major tribes would suffer similar fates, and such Cromwellian removals continued even into the twentieth century, with 300 Mississippi Choctaws sent to Oklahoma in 1903.
And yet despite all these hardships, in 1847 the Choctaw people sent a $170 donation to Ireland during the Great Hunger in an effort to help with famine relief. It would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money.
Today in Midleton, County Cork, there stands a large sculpture consisting of nine 20-foot stainless steel eagle feathers set in a circle, forming the shape of a bowl. The sculpture is called Kindred Spirits, was commissioned by Midleton Town Council, and was dedicated in June 2017 by senior members of the Choctaw Nation and the local council. It commemorates that act of generosity over a century ago.
In March of this year Leo Varadkar addressed members of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. “Your act of kindness has never been, and never will be, forgotten in Ireland,” he said. He also announced a scholarship scheme in which Choctaw people can go to Ireland to study in Irish universities. “This is an opportunity for us to learn from you and from your culture, and you from ours, in a sharing of knowledge that will enrich both our peoples,” he said.
This may be an age in which cynicism can cloud every utterance by every politician, however these words deserve applause and due credit. Ireland’s role in the world has never been that of a major superpower, but small nations can make a difference by setting an example for others to follow. For all of Ireland’s faults, it has come back from the depths of humanitarian catastrophe, war and violence, to become a stable, peaceful, democratic member of the rich world. Far from being a banana republic, it is a role model for underdogs everywhere.
The title of the sculpture in Cork, Kindred Spirits, could not be more appropriate. The Irish have an emotional affinity for people working their way through problems that seem familiar to us. It is by no accident that an Irishman led the charity drive to help alleviate the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. The push for Scottish independence, the ongoing fight for Palestinian statehood, and the disadvantaged status of the North American Indians strikes an emotional chord with us. We want to help these people, or at least we root for them.
The Choctaw scholarship scheme is a very real contribution to making their lives better, and by helping Ireland to build networks with these communities there is much to be gained for both parties. Restoring an endangered culture, establishing good governance, and improving economic conditions have been major Irish achievements over the last hundred years. It will be interesting to see how much progress the Choctaw make in the next hundred.