Irish Repay NativeAmericans for 19th Century Act of Kindness

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to wreak havoc on our nation, it has become devastatingly clear that the virus is ravaging some historically underprivileged demographics with extreme ferocity. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that AfricanAmerican and Hispanic people comprise a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 fatalities, while lower income Americans, particularly women, have suffered the greatest financial impact from the large scale business shutdowns meant to contain the spread of the virus. Last week, the Navajo Nation, an American Indian territory in the Midwest, released their own sobering infection rates, which are some of the highest in the country. The escalation of COVID-19 cases is a shattering blow to the American Indian community, which is still reeling after centuries of systemic brutality and discrimination by the U.S. government.

Fortunately, financial aid for the Navajo Nation, as well as other tribes impacted by COVID-19, has poured in from an unexpected source – Ireland. Thousands of Irish citizens have donated more than $2 million to American Indians through a GoFundMe campaign, inspired by a stunning act of generosity from another American Indian tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, over 170 years ago. During the mid 19th century, Ireland was ravaged by the Great Famine, a period of mass starvation precipitated by a fungus that killed off the main crop of potatoes. Almost a million people perished. The famine also sparked a mass exodus from Ireland, and out of the two million Irish who migrated from the country, some 500,000 landed on America’s shores, becoming a pivotal portion of the “melting pot” that is the United States.

Still, as the famine continued to cause mass suffering in Ireland, a selfless act of human kindness sparked hope and gratitude for the Irish. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma mailed $170 to Ireland in 1847, a sum equal to more than $5,000 in today’s market. The donation from the Choctaw Nation was especially meaningful because many of their members, along with thousands of other Native Americans, had endured their own horrors during the 1830s, on what is now known as the Trail of Tears. This massive forced relocation from their ancestral lands by the U.S. government resulted in thousands of deaths from famine, disease, and exhaustion. For an oppressed people to demonstrate such compassion and generosity was an act of kindness the Irish never forgot. [See The Irish Potato Famine And The Choctaw Relief Effort, Native History Association,]

In 2017, Ireland honored the Choctaw Nation’s gift with a stainless-steel sculpture. But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that really provided Ireland with the ability to pay it forward by donating to the struggling Navajo Nation. The historical parallels between the hardships of the American Indians and of their own Irish ancestors, many of whom eventually landed on our shores to chase their American dream, is not lost on those who have contributed to the GoFundMe campaign. In an eMail to NBC News, Paul Hayes, who lives in Tippery, Ireland, and donated $170, noted, “I saw that Irish people were starting to donate and share the story of Choctaw Nation and the historical symmetry really affected me. Sending the actual amount of $170 personally after 170 years or so really felt like the right tribute across the ages.” [See 173 Years, $170: Why Irish People are Donating to Help Native Americans Hit by Coronavirus by Alyssa Newcomb, NBC News, 06.May.2020.]


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