Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.
It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.
– Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
My mom called us “Potato Irish”. When we were growing up, she explained that her side of the family emigrated to America during the Great Irish Potato Famine between 1845-52. At that time, a fungus attacked the potato crops in Ireland – the Irish depended on potatoes as a staple in their daily diets. The famine resulted in whole families dying from starvation and poverty. Wealthy landowners pushed families out of their homes and the suffering was pervasive and brutal. It is said that “over a million people died during the Great Irish Famine, and at least a million more emigrated” (Kirwin).
Some, like my ancestors, were able to find a way to the United States. Others were forced to stay home in Ireland and attempt to survive the crushing devastation. American papers reported about the crisis in Ireland, which caught the attention of the Choctaw Indian Tribe in Oklahoma. Just 16 years earlier, the tribe faced a similar type of devastation being driven from their land during the Trail of Tears, the American government’s relocation of Native American tribes causing thousands of dead citizens in its wake. The Choctaw felt a kinship to the Irish and wanted to do something.
This desire was especially unique considering the brutality the Choctaw just faced at the hands of Irish Americans (some Irish American generals overseeing their death march, led by President Andrew Jackson, another Irish American).
The Trail of Tears left the Choctaw impoverished and struggling to rebuild. Even though the Choctaw had nothing, they scraped up $170 – which is equivalent to about $5000 in 2020 – and sent their support to the Irish.
Fast forward to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard. Specifically, the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation have experienced the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates after New York and New Jersey. They also are disproportionately affected due in part to their rural locations – resulting in a lack of access to testing, medication and healthcare facilities, along with significant financial burdens. The Irish citizens heard of their plight, and a GoFundMe account circulated throughout Ireland. The Irish Times journalist, Naomi O’Leary shared the fundraiser on Twitter. Within a month, the Irish donated over $2 million and the funds keep coming in for their Native American brothers and sisters.
O’Leary wrote, “Native Americans raised a huge amount in famine relief for Ireland at a time they had very little. It’s time for us to come through for them now” (Kaur).
One of the donors from the GoFundMe page stated, “From Ireland, 170 years later, the favour is returned! To our Native American brothers and sisters in your moment of hardship” (Kaur).
Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said, “Adversity often brings out the best in people. We are gratified – and perhaps not at all surprised- to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi Nations. We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish potato famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting relationships, as we have” (O’Loughlin and Zaveri).
What is the connection? Why help people you have never met?
I think it’s called humanity.
Time Magazine correspondent, Melissa Godin, speculates about the connection and its lasting impression, “The Irish and Native American people – for whom storytelling is woven into the fabric of their societies – have kept the memory of their historic bond alive” with visits, a sculpture entitled ‘Kindred Spirits’ in County Cork, Ireland, and an Irish-sponsored scholarship program for Choctaw youth.
There is so much division in the world right now. Lines are drawn, fuses are lit and people are beyond infuriated. The intensity is palpable. There are certainly many wrongs to be righted in this world, there is no denying that unfortunate truth. But I would like to propose a different take, based on the Irish and the Native American’s model.
Could we, as a collective human race, become compassionate archaeologists? Is it possible to take a deeper dig into the past and retrieve what was right about the past – much like the Potato Famine example – and replicate those past rights? Call it the Potato Payback.
One donor put it best, “You helped us in our darkest hour. Honoured to return the kindness. Ireland remembers, with thanks” (Kaur).
The hand of benevolence is everywhere, stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses and bringing to knowledge the sympathies of the world the lowly, oppressed and forgotten.
– Harriet Beecher Stowe
Special thanks to Jaime Pollard-Smith for the inspiration.
Picture: Borrowed from Pinterest. Kindred Spirits sculpture in County Cork, Ireland.
Kindred Spirits commemorates the 1847 donation by the Native American Choctaw People to Irish famine relief during the Great Hunger, despite the Choctaw themselves living in hardship and poverty and having recently endured the Trail of Tears.
The sculpture consists of nine 20-foot (6.1 m) stainless steel eagle feathers arranged in a circle, no two feathers being identical, forming a bowl shape to represent a gift of a bowl of food. It was created by Alex Pentek at the Sculpture Factory in Cork, Ireland, with assistance from students of the Crawford College of Art and Design, and installed in Bailick Park in 2015. The memorial was commissioned by Midleton Town Council, and was officially unveiled and dedicated in June 2017 by Chief Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr., and Councillor Seamus McGrath, County Mayor of Cork, accompanied by a 20-strong delegation from the Choctaw Nation. (Wikipedia)
Carroll, Rory. “Irish Support for Native American Covid-19 Relief Highlights Historic Bond.” The Guardian, 6 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/09/irish-native-american-coronavirus-historic-bond.
Godin, Melissa. “Irish Donors Are Helping a Native American Tribe Face the Coronavirus Crisis. Here’s the Historical Reason Why.” Time, May 2020, https://time.com/5833592/native-american-irish-famine/.
Kaur, Harmeet. “The Irish Are Sending Relief to Native Americans, Inspired by a Donation from a Tribe during the Great Famine.” CNN, 6 May 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/06/world/ireland-native-americans-choctaw-gift-trnd/index.html.
“Kindred Spirits.” Wikipedia, 6 May 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindred_Spirits_(sculpture).
Kirwin, Padraig. “How a Small American Indian Tribe Came to Give an Incredible Gift to Irish Famine Sufferers.” The Conversation, Aug. 2018, https://theconversation.com/how-a-small-american-indian-tribe-came-to-give-an-incredible-gift-to-irish-famine-sufferers-98742.
O’Loughlin, Ed, and Mihir Zaveri. “Irish Return Old Favor, Helping Native Americans Battling the Virus.” The New York Times, 5 May 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/world/coronavirus-ireland-native-american-tribes.