On March 23, 1847, at a meeting in the small town of Skullyville in Indian Territory, Major William Armstrong, the U.S. agent of the Choctaw Nation, took the floor to speak. In attendance, gathered in a stone and timber building, were tribal members, agency officials, missionaries and traders. Armstrong, reading aloud from a pamphlet, informed them about an event taking place on the far side of the Atlantic and of no obvious interest to the Choctaw people: the Great Famine in Ireland.

The historical record doesn’t reveal exactly what Armstrong said at the gathering, and so far no one has unearthed the pamphlet, distributed by the Memphis Irish Relief Committee. But the generous response of the Choctaw is well documented, and it has given rise to a seemingly improbable friendship between the Irish and the Choctaw Nation. In large part, the bond between the two peoples is based on their shared experiences of colonization, mistreatment and suffering.

a fantastical illustration of a Choctaw tribes person shooting an arrow over waters to Ireland
Illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion

Many Irish were already living in harsh conditions before the famine. Seeing the extreme poverty in the west of Ireland in 1835, the French journalist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville described “a collection of misery such as I did not imagine existed in this world.” By the time Armstrong addressed the Choctaw people it was clear the famine in Ireland had been catalyzed by the failure of the potato crop that poor rural people depended on. The deeper, underlying cause was that Ireland, colonized by England centuries before, had been forced into a land tenure system that enabled mainly English landlords to extract substantial profits from Irish tenant farmers while leaving many of them destitute.

a painted portrait is seen through an archway
A 19th-century oil painting of Charles Edward Trevelyan, who oversaw the British response to the Irish famine. A pamphlet about famine relief rests on the floor. © National Trust / Donald Bovill & Susan McCormack

For these poor rural Irish families, modest beds, chairs and tables would have been the extent of interior furnishings, considered luxuries. Nearly half of them were living in one-room windowless mud cabins. Evicted and unemployed families lived in even worse conditions. They put roofs over ditches and burrowed into the banks, or lived in turf huts in wet, muddy bog holes.

Tenant farmers raised grain crops to pay the landlords’ rent. To feed their own families, the workers grew potatoes that were boiled and eaten at every meal, augmented by milk or buttermilk and sometimes bacon and salted herring. Once the blight came, the families were without a primary staple for nourishment. The British government was of little help. Charles Edward Trevelyan, a top treasury official, curtailed the government’s subsidized food distribution program, even at one point rejecting a shipload of corn. Too much aid might paralyze trade, he wrote in a letter, and would leave the Irish “habitually dependent on Government.” Instead, in the fall of 1846, Trevelyan managed a public works program, arranging for hundreds of thousands of Irish, including some women and children, to build stone roads and dig ditches for a pittance. It’s believed that many Irish people collapsed while working on the roads. Others huddled for warmth on unsanitary cabin floors, providing ideal conditions for the spread of typhus and other diseases.

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This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Historians estimate that more than a million Irish people died between 1845 and 1851, either from starvation or hunger-related disease—one-eighth of the population. Another million people left Ireland, mostly to England, Canada and the United States. The vessels that carried the disease-ridden and malnourished Irish refugees were known as “coffin ships.”

That’s the picture of the Great Famine we have today. The account provided 176 years ago by Armstrong—an Irish American friendly to the Choctaw, despite being a government official—communicated that mass starvation and land evictions were taking place, and the Irish people needed help.

The Choctaw were deeply moved. Some reportedly wept. Despite their own impoverished circumstances and the recent dispossession of their homelands, they raised either $174 or $710 (the number is disputed), the latter the equivalent of more than $5,000 today, to help with famine relief efforts.

At the time of their donation, little more than a decade had passed since the U.S. government’s brutal removal of the Choctaw from their homeland in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama and relocation to what is now Oklahoma—part of the forced mass migration of Native Americans that would be remembered as the Trail of Tears. On their new land, many Choctaw members were living in poverty, with inadequate housing and little access to food. In Skullyville, at the time of the Irish famine donation, several hundred Choctaw were camped around the government agency, hungry and destitute and dying of illness, which only makes the tribe’s generosity all the more astonishing. In the words of historian Anelise Hanson Shrout, writing in the Journal of the Early Republic, “It is difficult to imagine a people less well-positioned to act philanthropically.”

a map showing the forced relocation of the Choctaw to a reservation
This map shows the path the Choctaw followed as they were expelled from their tribal territory, beginning in 1830, and forced into what is now Oklahoma. Guilbert Gates

The money collected in Indian Territory that day in 1847 went to Memphis and then New York City, where organizers wrote it had been “contributed by the children of the forest … the Choctaw nation.” It was likely used to buy grain and other foodstuffs that were shipped across the Atlantic. Seven Irish newspapers published accounts of the generous Choctaw. Quakers, who played a key role in relief efforts, could have distributed the materials to the Irish.

Then, for nearly a century and half, the gift was almost entirely forgotten.

The person most responsible for resurrecting the story of the “Choctaw gift,” as it became known, is Don Mullan, an Irish humanitarian, author and filmmaker. Mullan and his wife, Margaret, live in a semidetached house in a modest suburb in south Dublin. I went there to ask him how it happened. During a traditional Sunday lunch of roast lamb, potatoes and vegetables, he pointed to a portrait on the wall of Desmond Tutu, the late South African bishop and human rights activist, who was a close friend of the Mullans.

In 1984, Tutu came to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dublin, and he talked about children in the townships of South Africa drinking water to fill their stomachs. He mentioned that they starved to death in a country that exported food. A light went off in Mullan’s head. He was struck by the parallel with Ireland in the 1840s.

The only crop that failed in Ireland during the Great Hunger was the potato. “Wheat, barley, corn, oats and grazing land for livestock were all flourishing, but these were cash crops for export, and Irish people, even as they starved to death, were forbidden to eat them,” Mullan says. Once shipments of grains and a variety of other commodities reached the Irish market towns, under the eyes of the hungry populace, they were often guarded by military escorts until they were safely shipped out of the country.

a man stands for a portrait in his home office
In 1989, Don Mullan and his father-in-law became the first Irish people to visit the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma to thank them for “the gift,” as it is known. Jeanette Lowe

Listening to Tutu and remembering this history inspired Mullan, as director of the humanitarian organization Action From Ireland (Afri), to create the Great ‘Famine’ Project. He describes it as a “marking,” or commemoration for the million Irish who died and two million who ultimately emigrated. “We put ‘Famine’ in inverted commas because we questioned the whole concept of famine, since there was no food shortage in Ireland,” he says, noting all the food that was being produced in Ireland and exported.

Mullan was speaking about the project in upstate New York when someone in the audience approached him and said, “Did you ever get with the Choctaws? The Choctaws helped the Irish.” Mullan had read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1962 book The Great Hunger, which contains half a sentence on the gift. Now, sensing the power of the story, he started searching for more information.

He tracked down the Arkansas Intelligencer, one of the first newspapers to record the gift, referring to the “‘poor Indian’ sending his mite to the poor Irish!” What moved him, Mullan says, was the context in which this happened, with the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. “The Choctaws had suffered a horrendous brutality at the hands of white Europeans, and yet despite that they could allow their humanity to supersede any prejudice they were entitled to carry.”

As it happens, de Tocqueville had witnessed that tragedy as well. In the winter of 1831, he stood on the riverbank in Memphis and watched a large band of Choctaw board a ship for the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, en route to Indian Territory. “The cold was unusually severe; the snow had frozen hard upon the ground, and the river was drifting huge masses of ice,” de Tocqueville wrote. “The Indians had their families with them; and they brought in their train the wounded and the sick, with children newly born and old men upon the verge of death. They possessed neither tents nor wagons, but only their arms and some provisions. … Never will that solemn spectacle fade from my remembrance.” Between 1831 and 1833, an estimated 15,000 Choctaw people traveled the Trail of Tears, a journey of more than 500 miles, and approximately a quarter of them died along the way.

In 1989, Mullan, determined to tell the story, produced a radio program about the Choctaw gift for Ireland’s national broadcasting service. “Nobody knew about it in Ireland except maybe famine historians,” he says. “People were moved by it.” The following year Mullan visited the Choctaw of Oklahoma and thanked them for the gift. “There was a lovely reception there, and I think they were as curious as anyone that this Irish person was on their doorstep.” Although they didn’t remember anything about the gift, it made sense to them, Mullan says, “because giving and helping others is a big part of Choctaw culture.”

In 1990, he invited some Choctaw tribal members to lead Afri’s commemorative Famine Walk, which takes place every year in County Mayo, and they made Mullan an honorary chief of the Choctaw Nation.

In 1992, Mullan decided to commemorate the Choctaw Trail of Tears by walking it in reverse. “I did it with two other people … and when I did that I first met Waylon Gary White Deer, the distinguished Choctaw artist.” Mullan and White Deer became friends, and they have since traveled together on many speaking tours. In 1995, Mullan invited White Deer to Ireland to lead the Famine Walk, and in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of the Choctaw gift, the Irish government commissioned him to paint a symbolic representation of the Irish-Choctaw connection. On a bodhran, or Irish drum, he painted a Choctaw mother holding an Irish baby, and he donated his commission of nearly $14,000 to Concern Worldwide, an Irish aid and humanitarian organization.

a man in a colorful vest sits for a portrait
Waylon Gary White Deer, pictured at the Cartoon Saloon film studios in Kilkenny, Ireland, is working on an animated film about the Choctaw-Irish connection. Jeanette Lowe

What motivated the Choctaw to donate to a people they didn’t know thousands of miles away? At the time, some white people interpreted such generosity as evidence of the positive influence of white culture. “They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism,” the Arkansas Intelligencer said. White Deer dismissed that view as ridiculous. “As I see it, you have one poor, dispossessed people reaching out to help another poor, dispossessed people,” White Deer explains. “We heard about another people who were suffering much as we had suffered, and so we must help them.”

Piece by piece, largely through the work of Mullan and White Deer, a relationship has grown between the Choctaw and Irish. It is founded on the story of the famine gift and the shared experience of colonization, and conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and generosity. A plaque commemorating the gift is fixed to a wall in the Mansion House, the official residence of the lord mayor of Dublin.

In 2020, when the Navajo and the Hopi were among the groups in the United States hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Irish donated nearly $2 million to their relief fund. “It took off like wildfire here,” says Mullan. “A lot of Irish people know the story now, and here were Native American people who needed our help.” Larry Mullen Jr., drummer for the Irish rock band U2, gave $100,000, but most Irish donors gave small amounts. Many also posted comments on the relief fund website.

“It’s only fair,” said one.

“Repaying an Irish debt,” said another.

“We remember.”

“For kindness shown to Ireland.”

in 2018, the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He made a heartfelt speech promising the act of kindness would never be forgotten, and he announced a new scholarship program for Choctaw students to attend school in Ireland. One of the program’s recent beneficiaries is Austin West (who uses they/them pronouns), a political science student who arrived in Cork in 2021, at the age of 23. It was West’s first experience of international travel and one of the few times they had been outside Oklahoma or its neighboring states. West wore a shirt printed with the words “Chahta Sia Hoke” (I Am Choctaw) as a reminder the spirit of the Choctaw community was with them. West’s tuition and expenses were covered by the Irish government for a year of master’s-level study at University College Cork, in the field of international relations and diplomacy.

Exiting the airport in a cold, drizzling rain, West climbed into a taxi and then realized that they had forgotten to withdraw euros to pay for the fare. “The taxi driver was super friendly, but I couldn’t understand a word he was saying,” West remembers. “I panicked, thinking everyone in Ireland would have as thick an accent as him, and I wouldn’t be able to understand them.” When the taxi driver started grilling West on Irish politics and social issues, Brexit, Afghanistan, religion and Donald Trump, West tried to provide answers.

“We had to stop at a random ATM to withdraw euros, and I could barely remember my PIN,” West says. “He dropped me off near my accommodations, but I soon realized it was the wrong location. I stood there in the Irish rain. It took about 30 minutes of comical confusion, walking through the puddles and the rain with my luggage, to find my accommodations. Then I collapsed on the bed. I ended the day by looking at that shirt—‘Chahta Sia Hoke’—and being excited about what was going to come next.”

The following morning, after securing an Irish SIM card and phone plan, West walked to the main quadrangle at University College Cork and took a photograph of the emerald lawn enclosed by gray limestone crenellated walls, with arched windows and doorways, narrow chimneys, and a clock tower. It reminded them of the fictional Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter movies. West sent the photograph to relatives in Oklahoma, and their sister replied, “I hate you. I’m so jealous. It’s so beautiful.”

There was another Choctaw scholar in Cork, and West was eager to meet her. Claire Green Young was a graduate from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who had already studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and University College London in England. West contacted her through social media, and the two arranged to meet at a falafel shop in Cork’s city center.

a woman in a dress stands for a portrait in a quadrale with a brick building behind her
At University College Cork, Claire Green Young wears a traditional dress adorned with a pattern representing rattlesnakes, which the Choctaw revere. Jeanette Lowe

“We hit it off pretty instantly,” said Young a few months later, as she sat with West in a cafeteria on campus, wearing a traditional long Choctaw skirt sewn with ribbons and a three-tiered beaded necklace with matching earrings. “We’ve both made other friends here, but it’s so nice to have someone …” As she paused, West completed her sentence: “You don’t have to explain everything to.”

The students tell the story of the famine gift many times a week, and it often requires explaining who Choctaw people are and giving a basic overview of Indigenous people in North America. “My identity is definitely very ‘other’ to Irish people,” says Young. “But there’s a great interest and great compassion and a great will to learn here.”

West and Young are both of mixed ancestry—something the two repeatedly explain to people. “We constantly feel the weight of it, of not looking Native enough for people,” says Young. “I haven’t faced anything derogatory or presumptuous in Ireland, but I’ve definitely heard, ‘Oh, you don’t look Indian,’ and, ‘Oh, you don’t really look Native American.’”

Young is of mixed Choctaw and Irish descent—one of her great-grandmothers married an Irish settler—but she grew up knowing only her Choctaw ancestry, history and culture. “The Irish side wasn’t really talked about in my family,” she says. “A lot of the motivation for applying for this scholarship was because I wanted to come to Ireland and feel that reconnection with ancestors. It’s very personal for me, and sometimes very emotional.”

When she wears her “regalia,” as she calls her full-length, long-sleeve dress with an apron and beaded jewelry, she attracts attention. At a hotel in County Mayo, a man complimented her outfit and asked about it. When she told him she was Choctaw, he clutched his chest and said, “Wow, welcome, thank you. I know about the gift, thank you from our ancestors.” Young had to make an excuse and leave, because she was about to weep.

West regards the famine gift as a perfect example of Choctaw values. “Compassion, giving, making sure everyone is well,” West says. “That, to me, is what being Choctaw is. My grandmother was constantly offering food, checking that people had enough to eat.”

The gift also reminds West of a traditional Choctaw story. Two hungry men go out hunting, and at the end of the day all they have is one scrawny bird. They hear a woman wailing and go to her. “I’m hungry,” she says. “Can you give me what you have?” They give her the bird and in return she gives them the gift of corn, which becomes a staple food for the Choctaw.

Academically, both scholars thrived in Ireland. Young, in the museum studies program, helped curate an exhibition for the Cork Public Museum, before a summer work placement at the National Museum of Denmark’s North American Ethnographic Collection in Copenhagen.

West had a steep learning curve when it came to Irish political science—“I didn’t know anything about the taoiseach [prime minister] or the Houses of Oireachtas [parliament]”—but received high grades and worked a summer internship at the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland.

The two scholars have taken great pleasure in exploring this old city of bridges, riverwalks, pubs and churches, and eating almond croissants in the 18th-century covered market. West and Young have taken trips together to Blarney Castle, the Cliffs of Moher and nearby Midleton, where the Irish-Choctaw relationship is memorialized in a sculpture by the Irish artist Alex Pentek.

Dominating a small park by a river estuary in Midleton, gleaming in the sunshine, are nine stainless steel eagle feathers, 20 feet high and arranged in the shape of a bowl. The name of the sculpture is Kindred Spirits, and it represents the gift of a bowl of food. “When I come here, especially with Claire, it’s very reassuring,” says West. “It’s a feeling of, oh, I’m still connected, I’m not separated from my people in this unknown country.”

The phrase “Kindred Spirits” is also used by White Deer, who embodies the Choctaw-Irish relationship as much as anyone. He has visited Ireland 17 times and was honored to be received by Mary Robinson, when she was president of Ireland, at the official residence in Phoenix Park. “We had tea, and she thanked the Choctaw people on behalf of Ireland through me,” he says.

He recently spent eight consecutive years in Ireland, living in Dublin and County Donegal, painting, writing an autobiography, leading commemorative famine walks and learning some of the Irish language. Returning home to Ada, Oklahoma, in 2020, he found that his small, wood-framed 1940s house had deteriorated from storm damage. Then, in 2021, a huge winter storm finished off the plumbing and the roof, and left holes in the floor. “I was recovering from a heart procedure and didn’t have running water,” he says. “I applied for home repair assistance to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Choctaw Nation and the Chickasaw Nation. They all turned me down.”

When Mullan found out, he immediately started a GoFundMe campaign for White Deer and publicized it across Irish media and social media. The campaign raised €17,000 in the first year, enabling White Deer to pay for a new roof, partially repair the plumbing and repair the floor, “all thanks to the people of Ireland,” he says. Further donations enabled him to complete repairs on the plumbing and the gas heater system, and winterize the property.

White Deer has illustrated his thoughts and feelings about the Choctaw famine gift in a painting titled An Arrow Shot Through Time. “I heard that phrase from one of our elders, referring to a lost arrow that had been shot many years before and landed in the future,” he says. “I applied it to the famine gift story. We’ve come to the place where the arrow landed; we have it in our hands again, and we can move forward with it. It’s a story that belongs to everyone, not just Irish and Choctaw people. It’s about the power of compassion and generosity.”

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