The Choctaw Nation’s Gift to the Irish

In 1847, only 14 years after their long, sad march along the Trail of Tears ended, Choctaw people in Oklahoma learned of the Irish famine. With great empathy, Choctaw individuals made donations totaling $170, the equivalent of several thousand dollars today, for the relief of the Irish poor. Here Judy Allen, historic projects office of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, describes “an act that shaped tribal culture” and the lasting friendship it created between the two nations.

George Catlin (1796–1872).
George Catlin (1796–1872). "Ball-play of the Choctaw: Ball-up," 1846–50. In 1834, on his travels in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), George Catlin watched Choctaws playing stickball. (Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. Smithsonian American Art Museum 1985.66.428A)

On March 23, 1847, a group of Choctaw leaders and others met in eastern Oklahoma to raise money for "the relief of the starving poor in Ireland." They collected $170, which was sent first to the Memphis Irish Relief Committee, then to the General Irish Relief Committee of the City of New York. This gift from an American Indian nation was recognized as extraordinary even at that time; the chairman of the New York committee mentioned it specifically in reports to the Central Relief Committee in Ireland.

Last year, at the beginning of a St. Patrick’s Day visit to the United States, the Irish head of state visited Oklahoma to thank the Choctaw Nation and announce an Irish scholarship program for Choctaw youth. It is not the first time the Irish have remembered the Choctaws' extending their hand. In 1992 a group of Irish men and women walked the 600-mile Trail of Tears, raising $170,000 to relieve suffering in famine-stricken Somalia—$1,000 for every dollar donated by the Choctaw people in 1847. In 2017 a Choctaw delegation took part in the dedication of Kindred Spirits, a sculpture commissioned by the people of County Cork to commemorate the Choctaws' kindness. “These people were still recovering from their own injustice, and they put their hands in their pockets and they helped strangers,” County Councilman Joe McCarthy pointed out at the ceremony. “It’s rare to see such generosity. It had to be acknowledged.”

The Choctaw Nation was the first of the large southeastern tribes relocated under the Indian Removal Act. Between 1831 and 1833, around 20,000 Choctaw people set out on the journey to Oklahoma from their traditional lands east of the Mississippi River. Historians estimate that 4,000 died along the way.

Here Judy Allen, historic projects officer for the Choctaw Nation, describes the Choctaws' original gift to the Irish and how it reflects enduring cultural values.

The Choctaw people have a history of helping others. Only 16 years after they began their long, sad march along the Trail of Tears, the Choctaws learned of people starving to death in Ireland. With great empathy, in 1847 Choctaw individuals made donations totaling $170, the equivalent of several thousand dollars today, to assist the Irish people during the famine. It was an amazing gesture. Though they had meager resources, they gave on behalf of others in greater need.

In 1995, Irish President Mary Robinson, later UN Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to thank the Choctaws for their generosity toward the Irish, a people with whom she noted their only link was “a common humanity, a common sense of another people suffering as the Choctaw Nation had suffered when being removed from their tribal land."

President Robinson also acknowledged the many Choctaws who have visited Ireland to take part in commemorating the Famine Walk. “Earlier in the month I met one of the members of the tribe, the artist Gary White Deer,” she said. “He explained to me that taking part in that walk and remembering the past between the Choctaw Nation and Irish people and relinking our peoples is completing the circle. I have used that expression recently at a major conference on world hunger in New York. I spoke of the generosity of the Choctaw people and this idea of completing the circle.”

This charitable attitude resonates still today when crisis situations occur across the world. In 2001, tribal people made a huge contribution to the Firefighters Fund after the Twin Towers attack in New York City and have since made major contributions to Save the Children and the Red Cross in 2004 for tsunami relief, in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina relief, for victims of the Haiti earthquake, and most recently for people affected by hurricanes in Houston, Puerto Rico, and Florida. Good works are not exclusive to humanitarian organizations and funds. The Choctaw Nation received the United States National Freedom Award in 2008 for the efforts made in support of members of the National Guard and Reserve and their families. There are countless stories of Choctaw individuals who have looked past their own needs to help their neighbors.

Judy Allen is historic projects officer for the Choctaw Nation. Previously she has served as the Choctaw senior executive officer of tribal relations (2013 to 2016) and executive director of public relations (1999 to 2013). Ms. Allen originally wrote this piece in 2011; it has been updated to include more recent Choctaw charitable works.