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Irish Return Historic Favor by Donating to Native Americans During Pandemic

In 1847, the Choctaw Nation sent $170—more than $5,000 today—to victims of the Irish potato famine

Choctaw and Irish dancers at a 2017 dedication ceremony of a sculpture commemorating the 1847 donation (Deidre Elrod / Choctaw Nation)
smithsonianmag.com

At the height of the Irish potato famine, members of the Choctaw Nation banded together to donate $170—more than $5,000 today—toward relief efforts, selflessly contributing despite their own hardships.

During a March 23, 1847, meeting in Skullyville, Oklahoma, “they were asked to dig deep for a group of people they had never met,” wrote Natasha Frost for Atlas Obscura in 2018. “And, incredibly, they did.”

Now, as the United States’ Native American community navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of Irish people are making charitable donations to return the Choctaw’s 173-year-old favor, report Ed O’Loughlin and Mihir Zaveri for the New York Times.

As of this writing, an online fundraiser benefitting the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation has raised more than $2.5 million for water, food and health supplies. Irish donors have contributed around half a million dollars (and counting), the GoFundMe campaign’s organizers tell CNN’s Harmeet Kaur.

Many of these donors have specifically cited the Choctaw’s 1847 gift. One Pat Hayes, for instance, wrote, “From Ireland, 170 years later, the favour is returned! To our Native American brothers and sisters in your moment of hardship.”

Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, tells the Times that his tribe is “gratified—and perhaps not at all surprised—to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi Nations.”

He adds, “We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish potato famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have.”

In 1831, the Choctaw became the first Native Americans forced by the United States government to march west along the Trail of Tears. During the roughly 500-mile journey, close to one-third of the tribe died of starvation, exposure and disease, according to the National Library of Medicine’s “Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness” exhibition.

When approached for donations in 1847, the Choctaw people’s state of affairs remained stark. Though years had passed since the tribe’s forced relocation from Mississippi to Oklahoma, the community remained plagued by poverty, disease and premature death. As Anelise Hanson Shrout wrote for the Journal of the Early Republic in 2015, “It is difficult to imagine a people less well-positioned to act philanthropically.”

In Ireland, meanwhile, the potato famine was exacting a devastating toll. All told, an estimated one million Irish people died of hunger and famine-related disease between 1845 and 1849, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the U.S. As of Monday, 2,474 people had tested positive for the virus, and 73 had died, according to a statement.

The pandemic’s impact has been exacerbated by the prevalence of diabetes in the Navajo Nation. Per the Times, many of the Navajos’ multigenerational households lack electricity and running water—conditions that may have also contributed to the virus’ spread.

On May 3, the fundraiser’s organizers announced the delivery of 250 food packages to the Hopi Village of Hotevilla.

“We have lost so many of our sacred Navajo elders and youth to COVID-19. It is truly devastating. And a dark time in history for our Nation,” writes project organizer Vanessa Tulley on the fundraiser’s page. “In moments like these, we are so grateful for the love and support we have received from all around the world. Acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness. Thank you, IRELAND, for showing solidarity and being here for us.”

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