What kind of generosity could create a 171-year bond between two peoples separated by thousands of miles?
A native tribe of Choctaw were living their second decade in Oklahoma when they heard news about The Great Famine in Ireland. They have been banished from native lands in Mississippi and struggled to make a new home. Then, on March 23, 1847, the tribe was asked to donate anything they had for complete strangers across the Atlantic.
In 1830, the U.S. authorities throw the Choctaw into a dilemma. The tribe could remain independent if they chose to move to Oklahoma. If they wanted to keep living in their homeland, they had to cede their sovereignty to the U.S.
The Choctaw choose the first option. 15,000 women, men, children and the elderly covered thousands of miles by foot to reach Oklahoma. Almost quarter of the tribe died on the way.
After 170 years, the Irish still remember of ‘the small big donation’ that the Choctaw Nation made in their worst times
Oklahoma did not welcome the tribe warmly. One Choctaw man described how their habitations were ravaged and cattle turned in their fields: “We ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered, and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died.”
With that background, the tribe representatives were called for a meeting in Skullyville, Oklahoma and asked to help people they had never met.
The Choctaw tribe had few possessions. But they knew those strangers were starving.
The blight in Ireland was widely covered in the American press.
One of the the Ohio Statesman headlines read: “Six millions of human beings in Ireland and England, are within eight weeks of starvation!”
Around 2.5 million people moved from Ireland to the USA between 1820 and 1870. Ironically, the parents of President Andrew Jackson, who forced the Choctaw from their lands, came from Northern Ireland.
The tribe representatives were called for a meeting in Skullyville, Oklahoma and asked to help people they had never met
The government asked people all over the country for donations, churches and synagogues claimed they wanted to help Ireland. Even children from a NY orphanage raised some money ($2).
There were 118 shipments to Ireland that valued around $550,0000 in 19th-century dollars.
The Skullyville major William Armstrong was an American “Choctaw agent”. In 1847, he represented the tribe’s interests within cruel policy of the government. He approached the tribe to ask for money and probably did not feel very comfortable.
These people were deprived of 11 million acres of their land. Some of their fellow tribesmen were still coming to Oklahoma, exhausted, hungry and without a silver.
However, Armstrong had to read a circular about famine in Ireland to people crowded around him — white settlers and Choctaw Native Americans.
It is unknown what happened right after the proclamation, but those who assembled managed to donate $170. It’s well over $5,000 in today’s money, and most of these money came from Choctaw people.
Whatever the case, it was an amazing action. We can now assume that the Choctaw gave a little money they had because they felt connection with the Irish situation. These natives experienced similar pain and grief during their Trail of Tears.
White Americans considered the Choctaw act of generosity as a mere sign of the evangelizing progress. The Report of the General Irish Relief Committee states: “Even those distant men have felt the force of Christian example, and have given their cheerful aid in this good cause.”
Five more years had passed before The Great Famine ended. By that time the Choctaw tribe were engaged into the U.S. Civil War. They sided with Confederate forces and were promised a state under Indian control.
The next century brought a new portion of cultural isolation and oppression. In the 1970s the tribe regained some of their political and civil rights, and even created a tribal government with a constitution in 1984.
In the small Irish town of Midleton, in east Cork, there is a sculpture called Kindred Spirits. It consists of 20 feet tall feathers arranged in a circle. The design reminds an empty bowl that symbolizes the hunger the Irish once endured.
The sculpture was unveiled in 2017. After 170 years, the Irish still remember of ‘the small big donation’ that the Choctaw Nation made in their worst times to ease the Irish Famine sufferings.
Featured Image: Author unknown/Gavin Sheridan/Wikipedia