The town of Midleton in County Cork is home to a beautiful but widely unknown sculpture that celebrates the solidarity and generosity demonstrated by the Choctaw people towards the Irish during the Great Famine. The structure itself, named “Kindred Spirits”, consists of large stainless steel feathers arranged in a circular formation, and it is intended to commemorate the $170 donation made by the Choctaws during one of the worst years of the famine in 1847, which is estimated to be the equivalent of at least five thousand dollars in contemporary terms. The context in which this donation was gathered only further emphasises the immense kindness of the Choctaw people, as less than ten years prior to their aid, they had been subjected to a forced removal from their lands and attempted genocide of their tribe by the federal government, known as the Trail of Tears. It would be unwise to compare the plight of Native Americans with that of the Irish, given the fact that our lands were partially returned us, whereas the entire nation of the United States exists upon stolen and desecrated land, however, there remains an unspoken bond between the two peoples, forged in spirit by our mutual experiences of attempted population destruction by an oppressor. Essentially, we are brothers in arms against a common enemy, for lack of a more poetic description.
Native Americans were a beaten and broken community by the mid-point of the nineteenth century, and this may be almost entirely attributed to the devastating effects of European settlers upon their lands and their very way of life. It is thought that the Native population of North America was approximately ten million before European contact, and it currently consists of just over five million people — this steep decline in itself speaks to the immense trauma endured by the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. This is also eerily reminiscent of the pre-famine population of Ireland, which remains the highest recorded number for the island at eight million. The Trail of Tears is remembered as perhaps the most cruel act of indirect violence inflicted upon Native Americans, much like the inaction of the British government in its closest colony during the Great Famine is regarded among the modern Irish population. It goes without saying that philanthropy in the face of personal misfortune is a signifier of inner strength, and perhaps this was another aspect of the donation that motivated the displaced Choctaws; their ability to provide sizeable monetary aid spoke of their resilience as a tribe, not only had they survived a death march across the country but they had retained the ability to demonstrate empathy and charity. Both the Choctaw Nation and the Irish people shared a mutual trauma in the loss of their ancestral culture, thus forging an unspoken connection between them as victims of British colonisation.
The kindness of the Choctaws has resulted in deep respect and a longstanding alliance between our two communities, which found itself rejuvenated in the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade, two Choctaw representatives travelled to Irish shores in order to participate in a remembrance ceremony for those lost during the Great Famine, and this gesture was reciprocated two years later when Irish officials joined the Choctaw tribe on a march that commemorated their own losses to the Trail of Tears. There was no ulterior motive for either party involved in these trips, they served only to demonstrate the bond that emerged through mutual pain and has been sustained as a mark of respect for over a century. Another historic moment was observed in 1995 when then president, Mary Robinson, visited the Choctaw Nation and was declared an honorary chief of the tribe. It is also a little known fact that Eamon DeValera was made an honorary chief of the Ojibwe tribe in 1919, following a trip to America in which he was seeking to raise funds contributing towards the Irish fight for independence. During the ceremony, DeValera succinctly described the nature of the relationship between the Irish and Native Americans: “I speak to you in Gaelic because I want to show you that though I am white, I am not of the English race. We, like you, are a people who have suffered and I feel for you with a sympathy that comes only from one who can understand as we Irishmen can”.
In the twentieth century, Leo Varadkar has not only announced a scholarship scheme that accepts applications from any Choctaw individual who wishes to pursue their studies in Ireland but he also described the bond between our two nations as a “sacred” one. More recently, however, the relationship between the Irish and the Native Americans has come into focus once again, this time as a result of more unfortunate circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navajo people have experienced a disproportionate amount of cases in comparison with other ethnic groups in the United States, and the situation has likely been exacerbated by the poverty experienced within the Navajo Nation, as almost half of the population does not have access to running water. In response to reports of the Navajo peoples’ neglect at the hands of the federal government, which is sadly nothing new, a GoFundMe campaign that was largely contributed to by Irish donors managed to raise almost $2 million in order to support the community and provide the Nation with some relief during the coronavirus crisis. Despite the fact that the US government promised to allocate $8 billion towards all of the Native American tribes during the ongoing pandemic, no tribe has yet reported that they are in receipt of this funding. There is also the issue of limited medical care within the Navajo Nation, and although it spans an area larger than several states, there are fewer than fifteen grocery stores in the entire territory — how are these people expected to combat the threat of COVID-19 when their government has forced them to inhabit third-world living conditions in what is supposedly the greatest country on earth? The generosity that has been demonstrated by both of our communities during our separate times of need is a gesture of great kindness, and it is emblematic of the deep-rooted connection between our peoples that will hopefully persist and continue to flourish throughout the twentieth century.