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US Native tribes and Ireland’s 170-year-old connection is renewed in the pandemic

The Choctaw gave to Ireland during the Great Famine. Now a fundraiser for the Navajo and Hopi nations has Ireland paying it forward.

Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar is given a bamboo flute by Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, in Oklahoma on March 12, 2018.
Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

When members of the Choctaw Nation heard about the struggles of the Irish in the Great Famine in 1847, the tribe gathered up about $170 — $5,000 in today’s dollars — to send overseas for “the relief of the starving poor of Ireland.”

That 170-year-old act is being remembered, and, in some ways, returned, during the coronavirus pandemic. Small donations from places like Cork, Limerick, and Dublin have poured in after a GoFundMe to support the Navajo and Hopi nations went viral in Ireland earlier this month.

“In Ireland, we never forgot the generosity of your Choctaw Brothers & Sisters. Happy to contribute something small for now,” wrote Sean O Dubhlain, sending $25 via the GoFundMe. Allison Kearney, donating $70, wrote it was “a small token of the gratitude from Ireland.”

The Choctaw gave the money to Ireland about 16 years after the Trail of Tears, America’s brutal forced relocation of the nation from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. That gift, coming so soon after the nation’s own tragedy, is lodged into Irish collective memory. The story is taught in schools and has been honored with a sculpture in Middleton, in County Cork. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar visited the Choctaw Nation in 2018 to pay tribute to the gift.

Now the Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund has raised more than $3.6 million; as of May 8, more than 20,000 donors were from Ireland, Cassandra Begay, the communications lead for the relief fund, told me. Money keeps pouring in, too, not just from Ireland but everywhere, including from plenty of Americans of Irish descent.

“I do think this story really has its roots in what we are as a people — certainly, from the Choctaws, that’s what we are — and now the Irish are returning that gift back to this country and back to the Navajo,” Choctaw member LeAnne Howe, a professor of American literature at the University of Georgia and co-editor of the forthcoming book Famine Pots: The Choctaw Irish Gift Exchange 1847-Present, told me.

“So it’s this beautiful circle of life that we’re seeing,” she added, “at the same time as this terrible pandemic is ripping through this entire world.”

And the pandemic is devastating America’s indigenous communities, who were already vulnerable to the coronavirus. The first coronavirus case was confirmed in the Navajo Nation on March 17, which has now recorded more than 100 deaths. The nation’s population is only about 300,000 with about 170,000 living on the reservation.

The Navajo & Hopi Relief Fund, which came together in mid-March just before the crisis arrived, is all-volunteer — women, all members of either the Navajo and Hopi nations, make up the entire leadership team. They are using the money raised to purchase supplies: food and toilet paper and disinfectant, which are being distributed to older people and families. Organizers direct travel to remote areas to distribute goods, carefully sanitizing everything. But they struggle to coordinate volunteers with sometimes spotty cell service on the reservation. They must also work around a strict 57-hour weekend curfew imposed by the Navajo Nation, and stay-at-home orders that ask people to shelter at home from 8 pm to 5 am each day.

Begay said this speaks to the difficulty of grassroots, indigenous-led efforts like theirs — and how the support, from Ireland and elsewhere, helps. This small act of humanity, first made by the Choctaw in a time a crisis a century and a half ago, is now recast for the current catastrophe.

“We are just so grateful to the Choctaw nation, honestly. They’re the ones who planted the seed,” Begay told me. “A lot of indigenous communities think about seven generations forward, and I think this is one of those examples.”

Why the Choctaw donation has become part of two nations’ memories

The Great Famine devastated Ireland, killing 1 million and forcing millions more to leave, migrating to places like the United States. Relief committees sprang up in the US to try to help the Irish overseas. This is where the collection from the Choctaw went: first from Skullyville, Oklahoma, where the Choctaw made their donation, to a committee in Memphis, then New York, until it landed in Ireland.

The amount was $170, although Padraig Kirwan, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London who is also co-editing the book on this historical moment, said it might have been an even larger sum of $712. (It’s unclear if the mix-up is a recording or an accounting error, or if perhaps some money got lost or pocketed during the journey from Oklahoma to Ireland.)

The Great Famine in Ireland wasn’t just about potatoes; it was also a policy failure of the British government, one that deepened the human toll. The Choctaw Nation, when it made its gift to the Irish, was not far removed from its own tragedy, also imposed on the tribe by the government. US policy ordered the removal of the Choctaws, and other nations from their homelands to Indian territory, in a forced march west that killed thousands. The Irish and the Choctaw recognized their shared suffering, both under colonial forces, Howe told me.

“We felt their pain,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton told CNN earlier this month. “We sensed what they were dealing with.”

It was also an act of sovereignty on the part of the Choctaw. “It’s partly political as well, because it’s about undermining the idea of the colonial. We, as a people on the ground, can give to people on the ground,” Kirwan said.

History, of course, is always slightly more complicated than that. Jacki Thompson Rand, an associate history professor in Native American and Indian studies at the University of Iowa who is also a member of the Choctaw Nation, pointed out that Irish arrivals to the US played a role expanding settlements into Indigenous lands in the southeast. She also suggested other factors might have been at play, including the ties between Irish and Choctaw through intermarriage at the time.

It may have also been something of a show of strength, an attempt to assert the nation’s power in the Choctaw’s still-precarious circumstances. “They were in a very hostile situation in Indian Territory — it was getting overrun by settlers, they were at the mercy of all these unscrupulous people, lawyers, people who came in to govern the territory, that kind of thing — and so this was a good look for them,” Rand said.

But in Ireland, the story of this donation stuck. Naomi O’Leary, a journalist for the Irish Times and co-host of the Irish Passport podcast, told me there was a sense of connection and of shared solidarity. “There’s an identification with Native Americans because, I suppose, Irish people struggled to hold on to the place that they called home and struggled to hold on to their language and culture,” she said.

And the connection has continued. In the 1990s, some Irish representatives joined the Choctaw to commemorate the Trail of Tears, which included a joint effort to raise money for relief in Somalia. When Ireland commemorates the Great Famine with a walk, members of the Choctaw have also joined.

In Middleton, in County Cork, Ireland, a sculpture commemorates the donation. Alex Pentek, the sculptor who designed “Kindred Spirits,” chose to depict a giant bowl, composed of nine eagle feathers, the kind used in Choctaw ceremonial dress. Each was carefully welded to get the grains and the grooves of the feathers. Pentek wanted to capture the fragility of the historical moment.

“There was the Choctaw, having just survived their atrocities, with many thousands dead at the hands of the American government,” he said of his piece. “And yet, they’re still willing to pull together everything they had.”

Pentek has been told that when the wind blows through the sculpture, it makes a keening sound.

America’s indigenous communities are still very vulnerable

In early May, the journalist O’Leary called attention to the Navajo fundraiser in a tweet. “Native Americans raised a huge amount in famine relief for Ireland at a time when they had very little,” she wrote. “It’s time for is to come through for them now.”

She wasn’t the only person, or the first, to promote it, she said, but her tweet blew up. Ireland began chalking up $10 and $20 and $50 donations, paying forward the kindness of 150 years ago.

The reciprocity also underscores the long, historical trail of injustice Native communities face. It has put them at higher risk, and left them even more vulnerable, in the pandemic.

As Maria Givens wrote for Vox in March:

While nearly no one in the country is safe from the coronavirus outbreak, its impact on Indian Country looks different from the rest of the US. Tribal elders are more at risk of Covid-19 because of high rates of diabetes and heart disease. Clean water for proper hand-washing is not accessible in all tribal communities, and overcrowding in Native homes is also common as many are multi-generational, creating social distancing challenges. Meanwhile, emergency federal funding for tribal health organizations has been delayed within the bureaucracy at US Health and Human Services. Then there are the negative economic effects, with hospitality businesses like casinos — often tribes’ greatest source of income — closing. Indian Country’s resources were stretched thin to begin with, and the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the disparities.

In May, tribes sued the federal government over delays in the $8 billion in stimulus funds promised to Native tribes in the CARES Act. It took more than a month for the funds to be released — just last week, the Navajo Nation received its $600 million share, according to the Washington Post.

Through it all, the number of cases continues to rise, and the Navajo Nation is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. The Navajo reservation extends 27,000 square miles, touching Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. More than 3,200 people in the Navajo Nation have tested positive for the coronavirus, with about 14,000 tests administered, according to the Indian Health Service. Right now, that accounts for more cases per capita than any US state. The death toll now stands at nearly 100 as of May 12.

A Navajo boy carries a wheelbarrow full of wood to heat his rural mobile home in Cameron, Arizona, on March 27.
Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“We’re so vulnerable right now,” Begay told me. “Native American issues are not seen in the United States. The US Congress has responsibilities to us because of the treaties, and because they don’t do their part, it creates [this] disparity.”

The Navajo & Hopi Covid-19 Relief Fund is trying to ameliorate this crisis. Started by Ethel Branch, an attorney and former attorney general for the Navajo Nation, the fund was born from concern that stores were running short of food and supplies, so she connected with other women to try to solve what looked like a coming crisis. They established a GoFundMe account, with the initial goal of raising just $50,000. Theresa Hatathlie-Delmar, vice president of the Board of Regents for Diné College and one of the fund’s volunteers, told me that just 40 days later, they had hit $1 million.

The money goes to supplies and logistics; everyone who works does so on a volunteer basis. Aside from food and toilet paper, they also give out essentials like baby items and medications like Tylenol.

“The whole idea is to keep families out of the grocery store for two or more weeks at a time so they’re not exposed to the virus,” Hatathlie-Delmar told me.

They have thousands of requests, and Begay says they must work around the Navajo Nation curfew, which complicates distribution in a vast reservation. Cell service is bad, sometimes nonexistent; a truckload can be en route to a site, but the person with the key who’s supposed to open the building isn’t answering their phone because there is no signal. There is only so much ground volunteers can cover in a day, and because of health considerations, the process is not always speedy.

When volunteers distribute the boxes, they must sanitize everything, and sanitize again once everything is given out. If they break protocol — answer a phone during their shift, say — they must stop working and sanitize everything one more time.

Hatathlie-Delmar is also the lead seamstress for the group, sewing masks and other personal protective gear. She has 124 volunteers, all but six of whom are women.

For masks, they started using fabric, but when fabric was expensive or hard to get, they used hotel linens. When they needed more, they bought sheets online. When they started running out of elastic, the sewers pulled the elastic out of fitted sheets to use.

They have made masks, but also hospital gowns, shoe covers, hair covers, and even face shields. The donations go where they’re needed, Hatathlie-Delmar said: the police or fire services, or senior care centers, community health centers. They started in April, and as of May 11, the group had sewn 18,171 masks.

These relief efforts cannot undo some of the larger challenges, like the lack of access to running water. Families live in multigenerational households, which means the virus, once inside a home, can spread quickly. Internet service is also unreliable; the radio is the best source of news and information.

And in a close-knit community, people are sick and people are dying. Everyone knows someone affected. Begay said they’ve lost their sacred elders, and they have lost youth.

“We don’t have time to grieve right now,” she said. “We have to keep going because there will come a time where we can grieve later and honor those people.”

Even the small $10 and $20 donations, from Dublin or anywhere else, is assisting the efforts on the ground. That act of the Choctaw has been paid forward in the global pandemic, and, if history holds, will probably passed along again.

“These are the stories that we carry and they serve us well,” Howe said. “I think that’s the one thing. This isn’t a quaint story. This is the bigger story of humanity.”


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