• The gift of $150 in 1847 has sparked a lasting connection across the Atlantic.
  • Native American communities are suffering terribly from the coronavirus.
  • Irish people have rallied to support them.

In March 1847, Ireland was in the grip of a famine caused by potatoes – the staple diet of the rural Irish – being all but destroyed by blight. It was the worst famine to occur in Europe in the 19th century, and about 1 million people died.

When news of the disaster reached the Choctaw people they gathered what money they could and sent it to help Ireland. It may seem like a modest sum, but the $150 sent by the Choctaw was all they could muster at the time. In today’s terms, it equates to around $5,300.

They were moved by tales of the suffering in Ireland, possibly because they too had experienced multiple hardships. Many thousands had been forced to leave their homelands and live on reservations. Disease and starvation had already laid waste to many Native American people, and some descendants live in impoverished conditions to this day.

That act of kindness from 1847 has now inspired another, reciprocal, wave of support.

Paying it back

In March, an online fundraising campaign was set up to help buy food, water and other much-needed supplies for the people of two Native American tribes - the Hopi and Navajo - suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

As of 7 May, the GoFundMe page had raised almost $2.9 million. A surprising number of donations have been made by Irish people. Cassandra Begay of the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund took to the donor comments left on the page to find an explanation.

“We noticed a flux of donations from Ireland and our leadership team was like ‘what’s going on?’" she told RTE News. "So we started reading the comments about the history between the Choctaw Nation and Ireland … and we just thought it was so beautiful.”

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Donations and comments from Ireland have been flooding in.
Image: Go Fund Me

Friends in need

The Navajo Nation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It is experiencing some of the highest rates of coronavirus infection in the US outside New York and New Jersey.

Rates of asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are some of the most common causes of death in Native American communities – all underlying health conditions that can make someone susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection. Similarly, rates of smoking, alcohol and drug abuse are high in some Native American communities, too.

A mural warns residents of the danger of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak on the Navajo reservation, in Shiprock, New Mexico, U.S., April 8, 2020. Picture taken April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Hay - RC294G9IMH3A
A mural warns residents of the danger of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak on the Navajo reservation, in Shiprock, New Mexico, US.
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Hay

These health conditions are made even more worrying by the circumstances faced by far too many Native Americans. Many live in cramped conditions, in multi-generational households without routine access to safe drinking water. These elements combine to put the older members of the community especially at risk.

In 2017, a statue was unveiled in County of Cork, Ireland, to commemorate the Choctaw generosity. Called Kindred Spirits, the stainless steel sculpture is made up of nine six-metre eagle feathers, arranged in a circle.

And in 2018, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited a Choctaw community centre in Oklahoma. He reiterated Ireland’s gratitude to the generosity shown in 1847 and announced a scholarship programme to help young Choctaw people study in Ireland.