On Tuesday the 23rd of March 1847, members of the indigenous Choctaw Nation in the populous region of Skullyville, Oklahoma, the chief settlement of the Native American tribe following the loss of its Mississippi homeland to the United States, joined with US officials and other concerned parties to collect some $170 to help the victims of An Gorta Mór or the Great Famine in Ireland. A few days later a local American newspaper reported the event with evident surprise:
THE CHOCTAWS TO THEIR WHITE BRETHREN OF IRELAND – A meeting for the relief of the starving poor of Ireland was held at the Choctaw Agency, on the 23d ult. Maj. William Armstrong was called to the chair, and J. B. Luce was appointed secretary. A circular of the “Memphis committee” was read by Maj. Armstrong, after which the meeting contributed $170. All subscribed, agents, missionaries, traders and Indians, a considerable portion of which fund was made up by the latter. The “poor Indian” sending his mite to the poor Irish!
Arkansas Intelligencer, April 3, 1847
In early May at nearby Doaksville, another population centre of the exiled Choctaws, the local community donated $153 to the urgent cause of famine relief in Ireland. The Arkansas Intelligencer noted with smug satisfaction on the 8th of May that the native people were simply “…repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism.” The Cherokee Nation followed suit around the same time, eventually raising $245 for the impoverished in both Ireland and Scotland, causing The United States Gazette in the strongly Irish city of Philadelphia to reflect on a donation that “…comes from those upon whom the white man has but little claim. It teaches us that the Indian, made like as we are, has a humanity common with us.”
Now, over 150 years, Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach na hÉireann, has made a fine speech to the early 21st century descendants of the mid-19th century Choctaw who displayed such generosity to the Irish people in the dreadful period of “Black ’47”. It includes the welcome announcement of a scholarship for young indigenous men and women to travel to Ireland to study, which hopefully is just the start of closer ties between the two nations.
An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar at Choctaw Nation event Durant, Oklahoma
Halito. Minko Batton, Himak nittak a Durant vla li ka a kana hosh si aiyokpachi ka yakoke, chim achi li.
Chief Batton, Honourable Members of the Choctaw Tribal Council, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for the wonderful welcome and for making us feel at home.
It is an honour to be here on my first St. Patrick’s Day trip to the United States as Taoiseach – the Irish word for Chieftan – head of the Irish Government.
For me, the story of our two peoples symbolises the spirit of St. Patrick better than anything else.
Back in the nineteenth century, when the Irish people were oppressed, abused, neglected and degraded by our colonial master, at our lowest, your spirit of generosity was at its highest. You showed compassion to a starving people, who were dying in their hundreds of thousands, or about to embark on our own ‘Trail of Tears’ across the Atlantic Ocean to seek a new life in Canada or the United States.
A few years ago, on a visit to Ireland, a representative of the Choctaw Nation called your support for us ‘a sacred memory’. It is that and more. It is a sacred bond, which has joined our peoples together for all time.
Its impact was more than the lives that were saved 171 years ago.
It is seen in the way it made us think of our fellow human beings when they are suffering and in distress. To always look outwards as a nation.
It reminded us of the value of compassion, and encouraged us to try to become a beacon of hope around the world. Those principles guide our foreign policy today, whether it’s our peacekeepers serving with the United Nations, or the work of our aid agencies.
Your act of kinship, love and generosity almost two centuries ago is memorialised in Ireland’s history books and has been commemorated on many occasions.
As you know, just last year Chief Batton led a Choctaw delegation to Ireland for the unveiling of the powerful and poignant memorial in Midleton, Co. Cork: a beautiful sculpture called ‘Kindred Spirits’.
This is our way of saying that your act of kindness has never been, and never will be, forgotten in Ireland.
Like the Choctaw Nation, the Ireland of the 21st century is an entirely different place. We are a prosperous nation, independent, peaceful, self-confident and forward-looking.
We have built our prosperity on the strength and spirit of our ancestors, whose resilience allowed them to overcome the harshest adversity, and whose passion safeguarded our culture, language and heritage for the generations to come.
In our native Irish language there is a piece of ancient wisdom: ‘Ar scáth a chéile, a mhaireann na daoine’. There is no exact translation, but it means that people live under the wing of others. In other words, we are shielded from the sun by each other. We rely on each other.
171 years ago we were grateful for the shelter you provided. Today we endeavour to provide that same shelter to the suffering and oppressed around the world.
There are millions today affected by hunger, famine, oppression and war.
As a country we help through an extensive programme of international development, and by being a voice for those who have none.
Like the Choctaw people of 170 years ago, we have chosen to look outward, to do what we can to combat hunger and poverty around the world.
Over the coming years, we are committed to increasing the contribution we make through our assistance to the world’s poorest and most marginalised peoples.
So, today, I have come not just to thank the Choctaw people for what you did for us way back in 1847, but to look forward to our future.
We are united in wanting a future that is safe and secure, prosperous and equitable, fair and just; where people of different backgrounds and perspectives can work together to solve problems that cannot be solved alone
Through diversity, comes strength. Through unity, comes courage. Through endeavour, comes hope.
Today we will hear Irish music and Choctaw music – different traditions, reflecting our shared passion for the arts and culture. We have a mutual love of sport.
And our people also share a commitment to education as the single best means of building a better life for our children.
So, I am delighted to announce today a new scholarship programme, a partnership between the Government of Ireland and the Choctaw Nation, for Choctaw students to study in Ireland. This is an opportunity for us to learn from you and from your culture, and you from ours, in a sharing of knowledge that will enrich both our peoples.
The first scholarship will commence in the Fall of 2019 and will add a new dimension to the relationship between us.
You can sometimes tell the history of a people by tracing its tears and its blood. I hope that in the future it will be possible to do the same thing by looking for the sounds of laughter, and music, and the sharing of ideas
I thank the Choctaw Nation for their support and partnership in announcing this new scholarship programme.
Our ancestors were joined together in a time of tragedy; our descendants will be united by a spirit of hope.
Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.