by Jack R. Johnson
There’s a certain level of irony in the Choctaw Indian tribe being classified as one of the ‘Five Civilized tribes’ of North America because of their willingness to adopt various European customs, among them Christianity, centralized governments, and market participation. Not that they don’t deserve accolades for their civilized behavior, but perhaps more accurately what makes the Choctaw truly civilized is their willingness to reject the economic determinism of its colonizer, the United States, and to lend a helping hand to a distant neighbor suffering the same colonizing neglect, Ireland, during the terrible potato famine of 1847.
By the time of Ireland’s famine, the Choctaw had first hand experience of both deception by a stronger colonizing power, and starvation. During the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the so called five civilized tribes were forced off their land east of the Mississippi to reservations further west into ‘Indian Terrority’, a strip of land that would eventually become known as Oklahoma. Andrew Jackson precipitated the tribes forced march with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which authorized the government to extinguish Indian title to lands in the Southeast. The Choctaws lost their traditional homelands in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida and were forced to march off the land. Historian Edward O’Donnell wrote, “Of the 21,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. This despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then-General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans.” The winter the Choctaws spent on the Trail of Tears was one of the coldest on record.
In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas [Choctaws] were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.
Seventeen years later, a group of Choctaw people gathered in Scullyville, Oklahoma, their new home in ‘Indian Territory.’ Remembering the terrible hunger during their own Trail of Tears, they vowed to collect funds for the starving people of Ireland, then suffering under the oppressive economic strategies of Great Britain. On March 23, 1847 they passed the money they collected on to a U.S. famine relief organization. According to Jane Walsh writing in IrishCentral.com, “They raised $170 to send to the Irish people and ease their suffering. This figure is equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency.”
“It was the most extraordinary gift of all to famine relief in Ireland. The Choctaws sent the money at the height of the Famine, “Black 47,” when close to a million Irish were starving to death.”
Walsh also noted another irony in the Choctaw/Irish story: the man who forced them off their lands was Andrew Jackson, himself the son of Irish immigrants.
The memory of this gift, and the bond between the two people has survived the intervening years.
According to Ireland-Calling, in 1990, leaders of the Choctaw tribe visited Ireland to retrace the steps of the first annual Famine Walk in County Mayo, where, in 1849, Irish peasants were force-walked to the hunting lodge of their landlord to be inspected to see if they were worthy of so called ‘poor relief.’ When the starving people eventually arrived, they were told that the guardians could not be disturbed while they were taking their lunch. They were sent away empty-handed. Later, people found corpses by the side of the road with grass in their mouths that they had been eating for want of food.
Two years later, members of an Irish commemoration group walked from Oklahoma to Mississippi to follow in the footsteps of the Choctaw tribe that walked the Trail of Tears. They raised more than $700,000 which they donated to charities working to end poverty in Africa.
And, on June 18th of this year, representatives of the Choctaw Indian tribe and Ireland met in Midleton County, Cork, Ireland for a dedication of Alex Pentek’s Kindred Spirits sculpture, consisting of nine giant, stainless steel eagle feathers in homage of the Choctaw gift during the Black 47.
Cork County Council official Joe McCarthy said, “They [the Choctaws] bestowed a blessing not only on the starving Irish men, women and children, but also on humanity as a whole, causing a shift in human consciousness…. The gift of the Choctaw was a demonstration of love and I hope that their monument will encourage us to act as they did.”