Choctaw-Ireland solidarity

by Maria on May 4, 2020

A couple of years ago I wrote in a series for Medium about how the solidarity between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish people two hundred years ago is how we can resist the power vertical today. In 1847, Choctaw survivors of the Trail of Tears sent a couple of hundred dollars, a fortune to them, to Irish Famine relief. Those with the least gave proportionately the most. To this day, there is a friendship that goes deeper than the official sculptures and exchange visits that mark it. I’ve long planned to include this story in a longer project about how we can use stories to imagine better futures (partly) by finding unlikely common cause and building movements.

I never imagined there would be another chapter to the story. In the last day or so, the call went out amongst Irish for donations to support the Navajo and Hopi nations in Utah who have lost many elders to covid-19 and were already living in a food desert. Their GoFundMe page has message after message of gratitude and solidarity from Irish people (amongst many other generous donors), honouring our debt. It really is something beautiful.

Here’s an excerpt from my old piece about how these links are about more than mere sentiment.

In 1847, the Native American Choctaw Nation heard about the hundreds of thousands perishing in Ireland’s Great Famine. Sixteen years before, the Choctaw had lost many of their own along the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma. Today’s Choctaw Nation chief, Garry Batton, says, “When our ancestors heard of the famine and the hardship of the Irish people, they knew it was time to help.” The Choctaw people scraped together $170 they could barely afford, sending it thousands of miles to people they would never see. Motivated by not just pity but also solidarity, the Choctaw knew exactly what it was to be starved and banished by a government that saw them as less than human.

The Choctaw people didn’t just save a few Irish lives — they also saved themselves. Grasping that salvation would never come from a state that ignored or despised them, they quietly insisted on their own humanity by finding other people to help instead. They reached across a land mass and an ocean and grasped our hands in theirs and told us we did not suffer alone. The bond we share is now almost two centuries old.

I imagine the perplexed and bemused reaction of powerful people to the original connection of the Choctaw and Irish back then as something like our own surprise today at learning trees talk to each other. Until recently, we saw trees as very like individuals in capitalist societies: lone strivers in a contested space, ruthlessly competing, winnowing out the weakest and feeding on them. But it turns out trees have subterranean networks that go far beyond their roots, and even their species. Now, just knowing that trees can recognize and talk to each other, and may even have strategies for warning and support, has colored everything else we know about them. It makes them a force to be reckoned with.

And it’s not just the trees making counterintuitive connections.

Many who have known depression know that alongside the multiple shades of dreary gray and its acute and dully repetitive pain, depression can open you up to a whole-bodied awareness of other people’s suffering. Sometimes it’s the only way out, to walk through the world, skinless, surrendering to the almost unbearably vivid sense of the sorrows and joys of others. The aperture opens wide, and both light and darkness flood in. There’s a line in the New Testament, “Whatever you do to the least of your brothers, you do to me,” and the more I think about it, the less I believe it’s about eliciting justice, but expressing fellow-feeling. About quite literally feeling the pain and joy of others.

When, as groups, we become acutely sensitive to the pain of others who suffer, too, we can become determined to fix the whole society. Not only can we reach out, as the Choctaw did, to salve and console, but we can also change things that, without the subterranean network of fellow-feeling, we would have tolerated or ignored. Or, as Solomon Burke sang, “None of us are free, if one of us are chained. None of us are free.”

The rest of the piece, which is also about the young women workers at Dunnes Stores who refused to check-out South African goods during the apartheid era, is here.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.



Marshall Kirkpatrick 05.04.20 at 10:04 pm



Alan White 05.04.20 at 10:12 pm

This story heartened me more than just about anything I’ve read in weeks. Thank you Maria (if I may) for this.


c u n d gulag 05.05.20 at 1:54 am

I wholeheartedly agree with the other commenters.
This is the most joyful story I’ve read in a quite a while!

Thank you for sharing it with us.
You made my heart smile. :-)


John Quiggin 05.05.20 at 2:05 am



Jeff Ryan 05.05.20 at 4:43 pm

I had no idea. None.

What humanity. What honor.

Thank you.


Clara Hall 05.05.20 at 6:18 pm

What an exquisite piece of research and writing! Thank you Maria!!!


bad Jim 05.06.20 at 3:45 am

Charles Pierce wrote about this today, and ends with lines from Seamus Heaney:

“History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”


Bill Benzon 05.06.20 at 10:50 am

In The New York Times:

It is not surprising that the ordeals of Native American tribes resonate in Ireland. It is estimated that one million Irish people, mainly poor tenant subsistence farmers, died of hunger or disease from 1845 to 1849, and another million emigrated in that period or shortly afterward.

The famine was among the first humanitarian crises to be reported in the early days of global media, which helped spur donations to Ireland from around the world. In addition to the donation from the Choctaw, money was raised from prisoners in Sing Sing, former slaves in the Caribbean and convicts on a prison ship in London.


DavidtheK 05.06.20 at 3:51 pm

Great story, thank you so much.

I think some of those who fought for and were early leaders of the Republic would be very proud. Part of their worldview was that free peoples could go on to build unique ideal societies, An act like aiding the Navajo would be seen as the highest form of Irish patriotism as it causes the world to admire the humanity of the Irish people.

Hope you and your family are safe; and that the current leadership is worthy of this high calling.


Maria 05.06.20 at 4:44 pm

Thanks, guys. It really is something, eh?

Bill – that’s a good article. I gave some background on it but they went into much more range and detail than is easily available. It’s a really nice piece of reporting.

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