Kindred Spirits: the Choctaw memorial in Midleton, County Cork

In this time of an international pandemic, it is worthwhile to consider good news stories, and this one covers almost 200 years of history. In 1831, the Choctaw Nation in Mississippi were forced from their traditional lands and had to move to what is today the State of Oklahoma, about 5,300 miles. Their route is known as the Trail of Tears, as around 2,500 of the 15,000 Choctaw men, women and children died on the long trek, mostly from starvation and disease.

Fifteen years later, the Choctaw heard about the Great Hunger being suffered in Ireland, where around 1.5 million people died in just a few years of hunger and disease, while great stores of grain, meat and other foodstuffs were being exported to feed the English market. With an amazing generosity and fellow-feeling, on March 23, 1847, the Indians of the Choctaw Nation took up an amazing collection. They raised $170 for Irish Famine relief. That’s the equivalent of around $5,000 in today’s money. The generosity was never forgotten by the Irish, or the Choctaw people.

In 1990, Choctaw leaders took part in the Famine walk at Doolough in Mayo, recreating a desperate walk by 600 people to a local landlord’s home in 1849. The starving people were looking for help, but were turned away, as the landlord was having a tea party at the time. On their way home to Louisburgh, through appalling wind and rain, many of them died of exposure and hunger. The Choctaw leaders remembered that in 1990.

In 1992, 22 Irish men and women walked the Trail of Tears to raise money for famine relief efforts in Somalia, according to Bunbury. They raised $170,000, $1,000 for each dollar the Choctaw gave in 1847. In 1995, Ireland’s President, Mary Robinson, visited the Choctaw Nation to thank them for their gift of 1849, and the two nations have worked together since then to raise money for famine relief around the world.

In 2017, a sculpture, called Kindred Spirits, commemorating the Choctaw’s gift was unveiled in Bailick Park, Midleton, County Cork, in Ireland. Consisting of nine 6-metre stainless steel eagle feathers forming the shape of a bowl for food. It was designed and made by Alex Pentek, with help from students at a local arts college. It was officially unveiled and dedicated in June, 2017, by Chief Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr., and Councillor Seamus McGrath, Mayor of County Cork, accompanied by a 20-strong delegation from the Choctaw Nation.

Kindred Spirits: the Choctaw memorial in Midleton, County Cork

In 2018, Irish Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Leo Varadkar announced a scholarship program for Choctaw people to study in Ireland while he was visiting the tribal nation in Oklahoma. A plaque is mounted on the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin to commemorate the 1847 gift. It reads: “Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Today, the Choctaw Nation is one of the most severely affected parts of the U.S. The Nation has the highest per capita rate of infections after only New York and New Jersey, and funding
from the federal government arrived after a six-week delay, and only after the government was sued by the Choctaw. To deal with the health crisis, a GoFundMe account was opened by the Nation to raise funds. The original goal was $2 million, but word of the campaign reached Ireland through journalists and social media. As a result of the increase in donations, the target has been raised to $5 million. Ethel Branch, Organizer of the Fund, reported good news on May 6:

“Well we have now broken the $2 million mark, in good part due to a beautiful act of solidarity from our friends in Ireland, who remember the kindness shown to them by our Choctaw brothers and sisters, who sent them aid during the great potato famine in 1847. Thank you so much, Ireland!!!”

After almost 200 years, a good and generous deed is being repaid. As one Irish donor on the fundraising page wrote: “You helped us in our darkest hour. Honoured to return the kindness. Ireland remembers, with thanks.”

How’s that for a good news story!


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