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Irish repaying Choctaw blessing with coronavirus donation


Last updated 6/12/2020 at 4:01pm

Choctaw Nation

The "Kindred Spirits" sculpture in Midleton, Ireland, that was created by Irish artist Alex Pentek and dedicated in 2017 as a tribute to the $170 the Choctaw Nation made to the starving Irish during their famine in the 1800s.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz.-Recently, people of Ireland donated a substantial amount of the $3.6 million raised to help 4,300 Hopi and Navajo, in what some people consider a payback for a good deed performed by the Choctaw Nation in 1847.

In 1831, people of what is now the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma were pushed onto the trail of tears, removed from their homeland, forced to the Indian Territory. At least 4,000 Native Americans died by disease, starvation, and severe weather in the process of moving and resettling. For years they struggled to learn to find food and take care of their families in this new territory.

The Choctaw were still reeling 16 years later, in 1847, when, at a tribal meeting, they heard of families struggling to survive Ireland's Potato Famine. Thousands of people were starving and the Choctaw Nation understood what they were going through. The Choctaw nation compassionately took up a collection and sent $170 to help another ethnic group across the ocean.

And now, as the Native American community faces their worst pandemic in recent history, many of the Irish feel a desire to give back to the Native American community.

About 24,000 donors from Ireland have given roughly $820,000 in an online fundraiser operated by Native American volunteers to buy food and supplies for families on the Hopi and Navajo reservations in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

The Choctaws and the Irish have memorialized the story of generosity. In 2017, the Choctaws' chief went to Midleton, Ireland, for the dedication of a sculpture, "Kindred Spirits," that was created by Irish artist Alex Pentek to honor the donation the Choctaws gave. It stands 20 feet tall and has stainless steel eagle feathers in a circle to represent a bowl of food.

Some of the Irish who donated to the covid relief fund recalled the elements of shared history between the two groups.

Donor Sean Browne wrote on the fundraising group's GoFundMe page, "I am a grateful Irishman. Thank you to the Choctaw nation for their humanity in Ireland's darkest days." Another donor, Patrick Caffrey, wrote, "From Ireland . . . a kindness returned with remembrance, gratitude and solidarity."

Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said he is pleased to see Native Americans being helped. He said the Choctaws don't need help from the fundraiser, as the tribe has been able to help members from its own endowments.

"It's heartwarming the Irish are remembering what our tribal ancestors did and they're showing the Choctaw spirit of love and grace in reaching out to help our Hopi and Navajo brothers and sisters," Batton said to the Washington Post.

Ethel Branch, a former Navajo Nation attorney general, started the fundraiser after being worried while shopping for her mother-who lives without running water or electricity on the Navajo reservation. Native Americans on reservations are especially susceptible because of the crowded homes, often with several generations, and because of the high rates of asthma, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Branch told the Washington Post that she was surprised at the outpouring of support, especially of the Irish.

"One hundred seventy years later for this issue to resonate with the Irish is a testament to their kind heartedness and generosity," she said. "Native American issues often go disregarded or are ignored. For this to register with anyone and for it to register overseas, this is amazing."

The donations have gone towards purchases of tractor-trailer loads of meat, milk, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, dry goods, and cleaning and personal hygiene items.

The donations from the Irish to the Native Americans is expected to be remembered as long and as well as the donation from the Choctaw Nation.

"We have a tradition among Choctaw people that when you feed someone you're extending human life," said Waylon Gary White Deer, a Choctaw author and artist, to the Washington Post."That's one of the best things you can do for someone."


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