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Why Ireland is sending relief to Native Americans

May 6, 2020, 8:35 AM

Navajo Nation deaths...

Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on April 17, 2020. Kristin Murphy / The Deseret News via AP file

    (CNN) — People in Ireland inspired by an act of generosity by Native Americans committed more than 170 years ago are paying it forward.

In 1847, the Choctaw people collected $170 to send to people in Ireland who were starving during the potato famine.

The struggles experienced by the Irish were familiar to the tribal nation: Just 16 years earlier, the Choctaw people had embarked on the Trail of Tears and lost thousands of their own to starvation and disease.

Now, donations are pouring in from people across Ireland for a GoFundMe campaign set up to support the Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation during the coronavirus pandemic.

“From Ireland, 170 years later, the favour is returned!” a message from one Irish donor reads, “To our Native American brothers and sisters in your moment of hardship.”

Irish have donated about half a million, organizer says

The donations from Ireland seem to have started after The Irish Times journalist Naomi O’Leary shared the Navajo and Hopi fundraiser on Twitter, garnering thousands of likes and retweets.

“Native Americans raised a huge amount in famine relief for Ireland at a time when they had very little,” O’Leary wrote on Saturday. “It’s time for is [sic] to come through for them now.”

Ethel Branch, the fundraiser’s organizer, estimated on Tuesday that Irish people had donated about half a million dollars to the relief efforts so far, which goes toward food, water and other necessary supplies for Navajo and Hopi communities.

The campaign had raised more than $2 million, as of Tuesday evening.

“It’s very unexpected, but it’s just incredible to see the solidarity and to see how much people who are so far away care about our community and have sympathy for what we’re experiencing,” Branch told CNN.

The Navajo Nation has seen more than 2,400 confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 70 deaths, the tribal nation announced on Monday. The Hopi reservation, which is surrounded entirely by the Navajo Nation, has reported 52 positive cases.

The gift was an act of solidarity

In 1845, a fungus devastated Ireland’s potato crop, which the Irish depended on for food. The Irish potato famine would go on to cause widespread starvation and disease, killing hundreds of thousands of people and having a catastrophic effect on the country.

News of the Irish potato famine was first reported in American newspapers later that year. As coverage of the famine continued to ramp up, newspapers appealed to the American public to provide relief for those affected in Ireland — and Americans responded by sending funds.

The news eventually reached the Choctaw people in 1847, when Major William Armstrong came to Oklahoma for a meeting intended to raise money “for the starving poor of Ireland,” according to historian Turtle Bunbury. Those assembled at the meeting included missionaries, traders and chiefs of the Choctaw Nation.

The Choctaw leaders in the crowd had already experienced their own tribulations.

In the 1830s, between 12,500 and 15,000 Choctaw forcibly relocated from their ancestral home in Mississippi to Oklahoma, walking thousands of miles on the Trail of Tears. As much as a quarter of the tribe’s population was lost on the journey, and effects of the relocation were felt long after, according to Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton.

So when the Choctaw heard about the plight of the Irish, they dug into their own pockets, Batton said.

“We felt their pain,” Batton told CNN. “We sensed what they were dealing with.”

Much of the $170 — the equivalent of more than $5,000 today — raised at the meeting in Oklahoma that day came from the tribal nation, Bunbury wrote.

The Irish and Native Americans solidarity continues

The act of kindness was never forgotten, and the solidarity between the Irish and Native Americans has continued over the years.

In 1992, 22 Irish men and women walked the Trail of Tears to raise money for famine relief efforts in Somalia, according to Bunbury. They raised $170,000 — $1,000 for each dollar the Choctaw gave in 1847. A Choctaw citizen reciprocated by leading a famine walk in Ireland seven years later.

In 2017, the town of Midleton in Ireland unveiled a sculpture commemorating the Choctaw’s 1847 gift. In 2018, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced a scholarship program for Choctaw people to study in Ireland while he was visiting the tribal nation in Oklahoma.

The GoFundMe donations are just the latest example of the longstanding relationship. As one Irish donor on the fundraising page wrote:

“You helped us in our darkest hour. Honoured to return the kindness. Ireland remembers, with thanks.”

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Why Ireland is sending relief to Native Americans