Published June 3 2020
Crossing Borders: The Choctaw and Ireland
Told by Waylon White Deer
By way of introduction, I have been involved in representing the 1847 Irish-Choctaw story since 1995, both in Ireland and the States.
Harper's Bazaar and Niles Weekly Register are the two main contemporary sources of the 1847 Choctaw donation to aid Famine Ireland. The story has not been retained through oral tradition.
In 1847, the American government organized a voluntary relief campaign for the victims of the Great Irish
Famine (Irish: an Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger).
At that time, much of Ireland had been forced to subsist on potatoes. Irish lands and all other crops and livestock were controlled by absentee English landlords who were selling the grain, fruits and other foods of Ireland,
for profit. When the potato crop failed, over a million Irish starved and another million fled Ireland on "coffin ships" and 1847 was the height of the Famine, which lasted for eight years.
So, it was that in the spring of 1847, a voluntary Irish relief group calling itself the Memphis Committee
solicited money from the Choctaw in Indian Territory, at a place called Skullyville, where the Choctaw were assembled to await distribution of funds from their final removal treaty. The main Choctaw Trail of Tears had ended sixteen years earlier and with great loss of life.
The Memphis Committee told the Choctaw of a people overseas who were suffering from eviction,
starvation and disease, much like they had endured. The Choctaw listened and afterward donated their distribution monies to help feed the people of Ireland.
The amount of the donation was $170, which is the equivalent of $6,000 today. It was NOT a donation from
tribal government, but rather from the grassroots Choctaw people themselves, to the people of Ireland.
The Choctaw donation was recorded by the New York Relief Committee as being from "The Choctaw, the children of the forest" and was used to buy grain for Ireland. The grain was loaded onto a ship that set sail
for Ireland from New York Harbor in the spring of 1847.
Newspapers of the day added commentaries, such as the Choctaw were repaying Christian nations for
leading them out of benighted darkness and so forth, but Choctaw teachings are that if someone asks you
for food, then you feed them. We also say that feeding someone is the greatest thing you can do, for you
are extending human life.
This little story vanished from public view and was rediscovered by Don Mullan, an Irishman, who
reintroduced its telling during the run-up to the 150th commemoration of "Black 47," which occurred in
1997. Don Mullan involved me in retelling the story and I have traveled to Ireland many times since, to
represent the grassroots bond of the Choctaw donation.
The Choctaw donation is taught in Irish schools now, so it wasn't surprising about the Irish response to the Navajo and Hopi (Covid 19) campaign. What was surprising was the way the Western press has framed it, as being some sort of "debt" that the Irish owe the Choctaw, but are somehow repaying to the Navajo,
because we're all "Native Americans.” There is no debt, and tribal nations aren't all alike.
The Choctaw donation to Famine Ireland is a small and simple story of solidarity and compassion, a tale of
one poor, dispossessed nation reaching out to another. No doubt, the Navajo and Hopi will also reach out to other people and help them in their time of need. And so the light continues...