On March 23, 1847, the Indians of the Choctaw nation took up an amazing collection. They raised $170 for Irish Famine relief, an incredible sum at the time worth in the tens of thousands of dollars today.
They had an incredible history of deprivation themselves, forced off their lands in 1831 and made embark on a 500 mile trek to Oklahoma called “The Trail of Tears.” Ironically the man who forced them off their lands was Andrew Jackson, the son of Irish immigrants.
On September 27, 1830, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed. It represented one of the largest transfers of land that was signed between the U.S. Government and Native Americans without being instigated by warfare. By the treaty, the Choctaws signed away their remaining traditional homelands, opening them up for European-American settlement. The tribes were then sent on a forced march.
As historian Edward O’Donnell wrote “Of the 21,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. This despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then-General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans.’It was an amazing gesture. By today’s standards, it might be a million dollars.” according to Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s newspaper, “Bishinik”, based at the Oklahoma Choctaw tribal headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma.
The Choctaws are a Native American tribe originally from the southeast US (Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana). They were known as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes”, (Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, (a.k.a Muscogee) Seminole, and Choctaw).
The Five Civilized Tribes were called “civilized” by white settlers because they lived in European style settlements as farmers and planters, built stone and brick buildings and even owned slaves. They also dressed in a more European style than the plains Indians and had organized forms of government.
In 1831 President Andrew Jackson (whose parents emigrated from Antrim in Northern Ireland) seized the fertile lands off these tribes and forced them to make a harrowing 500-mile trek to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma, known as the “Trail of Tears”.
Of about 20,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. All this despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans.
The Choctaw’s sympathy towards the plight of the Irish came from their recognition of the similarities between the experiences of the Irish and Choctaw. They note that both were victims of conquest that led to loss of property, forced migration and exile, mass starvation, and cultural suppression.
This extraordinary gift from a people who were themselves impoverished has never been forgotten. In 1997, the 150th anniversary of that generous gesture, a group of Irish people walked with members of the Choktaw Nation along the 500 mile Trail of Tears but in reverse, back to the Choctaw homeland. In so doing they raised over $100,000 for Famine relief in Somalia.
Now sixteen years later they met in their new tribal land and sent the money to a U.S. famine relief organization for Ireland.
It was the most extraordinary gift of all to famine relief in Ireland. The Choctaws sent the money at the height of the Famine, “Black 47,” when close to a million Irish were starving to death.
Thanks to the work of Irish activists such as Don Mullan and Choctaw leader Gary White Deer the Choctaw gift has been recognized in Ireland.
In 1990, a number of Choctaw leaders took part in the first annual Famine walk at Doolough in Mayo recreating a desperate walk by locals to a local landlord in 1848.
The Choctaw made Ireland’s president Mary Robinson an honorary chief. They did the same for Don Mullan.
Even better, both groups became determined to help famine sufferers, mostly in Africa and the Third World, and have done so ever since.
The gift is remembered in Ireland. The plaque on Dublin’s Mansion House that honors the Choctaw contribution 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.”
A sculpture of nine eagle feathers will be installed in Bailic Park, in Midleton, Co Cork to thank the Choctaw Indians for their kindness and support during the Great Irish Famine.
Despite the oppression faced by the Choctaws in the years preceding the famine, on hearing of the plight and hunger of the Irish people in 1847, they raised $170 to send to the Irish people and ease their suffering.
This figure is equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency.
The sculpture, consisting of nine giant, stainless steel eagle feathers, is currently being completed by Cork sculptor Alex Pentek.