The Irish famine and the Choctaw on the Trail of Tears
You might wonder what the Irish famine and the Choctaw on the Trail of Tears has to do with Ireland. It is a story of incredible generosity and solidarity across a wide ocean that stands to this day as a testament of the bond between those who understand the fragile nature of humanity and the need to stand together in light of man’s inhumanity.
The Choctaws were the first of the five great southern tribes of indigenous peoples to be forcibly moved to Oklahoma by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830. Over 20,000 Choctaws were moved on this journey and it was the Choctaw people who first called the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands in Mississippi and Alabama The Trail of Tears. The enforced removal of the Choctaw people began in 1832. The Choctaw lost between 5,000 and 6,000 of its people on the harrowing journey and although the removals later became associated with the Cherokee it was the Choctaw who lost the most people on the trail.
The Choctaw had an inconceivable history of deprivation, forced off their lands in 1831 and made to walk 500 miles to Oklahoma, by the then President of the United States, Andrew Jackson (who was the son of Irish immigrants). Sixteen years later the Choctaw nation came to learn of the horrendous tragedy taking place in Ireland through the letters sent to an Irish Chaplain who read letters from the Irish to the people, and they met together to see if they could help. On March 23, 1847, the people of the Choctaw nation took up a collection. They raised $170 for Irish Famine relief, an incredible sum at the time worth around $20,000 dollars in today’s money.
The Irish famine and the Choctaw People on the Trail of Tears
Irish researcher’s uncovered evidence of this remarkable act of generosity in the late 1980’s, almost 150 years later. Don Mullan (who is a renowned Irish Humanitarian) decided to take a pilgrimage to the Choctaw Nation to thank the Choctaw people. While in Oklahoma Don, met Waylon Gary White Deer of the Choctaw Indian Nation and Don invited Gary to Ireland to attend the Famine Walk in Mayo.
Waylon Gary White Deer is a Choctaw artist who willingly came to walk and while he was here he painted a wall mural on the side of the Corn Beef Tin in Creggan (which is unfortunately been demolished). The mural depicted a Choctaw Indian woman holding an Irish Baby, with illustrations of Food and Irish Famine Victims, symbolizing the connection of the Choctaw Nation and the Irish.
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.
In 1992, Irish commemoration leaders took part in the 500-mile trek from Oklahoma to Mississippi. The Choctaw made Ireland’s president Mary Robinson and Don Mullan an honorary chief.
This great gift is remembered in several ways in Ireland. On Dublin’s Mansion House, there is a plaque that honours the Choctaw Nation and 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.”
In gratitude for the generosity and thoughtfulness, a delegation from Ireland walked with the Choctaw Nation in a recreation of the Trail of Tears and the Chiefs of the Nation were special guests of President Mary Robinson of Ireland during the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine.
A beautiful memorial sculpture was commissioned in 2014 to commemorate this great debate owed to the Choctaw Nation. Alex Pentek, the sculptor has created an incredible piece in the shape of an empty bowl signifying the ‘soup pots’ that were the only food relief given to the Irish during the famine surrounded by Eagle Feathers as a symbol of the Choctaw Nation. The Sculpture can be seen at Bailic Park, in Midleton, Co Cork.
In 2015, Waylon Gary White Deer moved to Ireland and now lives in Donegal he resides in a small cottage in the town land of Cashel na gCorr, near Gortahork which looks over Mount Errigal. According to the Irish Independent, he is learning Irish phrases and spends his days painting in the Donegal countryside and working on a novel that looks at the modern day. Gary Issi-Tohibi – or White Deer – says he feels a connection to the spirit of the land around Mount Errigal where he now lives.
“We believe that you carry a piece of your home with you wherever you go so that is with me today, here in Donegal. It is a very easy place to feel the spirit of the land. There is a great sense of place here, the spirit of the land is very much here,” he said.
You can learn more about the work of famine relief and the Irish Choctaw bond on their Facebook page here and if you want to see more stories on Ireland plenty to read in my Destinations section on Ireland as well.
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