They had just endured the cruelty of being forced from their lands in the Trail of Tears - and they were determined to help another nation in need. Padraig Kirwan and LeAnne Howe on the generosity of the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations
News of Ireland's Famine reached several American Indian communities in the United States during the winter of 1847. Following the lead of the Quakers, and recognizing the hardship that was unfolding, Myndert Van Schaick and a number of civic leaders established the General Irish Relief Committee in New York in February of 1847.
Their intention was not only to raise badly needed funds, but also to raise awareness amongst Americans of the unfolding calamity in Ireland. It seems likely that the New York Committee, as well as Indian agents such as Major William Armstrong – who was of Scots-Irish descent – and Irish settlers in Indian Territory all played a role in spreading news of the deplorable conditions in Ireland.
In just a few short months, this dark story had reached various corners of the United States.
The Choctaw and Cherokee Nations step in
The Choctaw Nation, and The Cherokee Nation were amongst the first tribes to hear about the great suffering in Ireland. They were also the first to act. In March 1847 the peoples of both nations gathered at two separate meetings. The Cherokee met at Fort Gibson, in the Western Cherokee Nation.
In the days that followed, representatives from the Choctaw Nation congregated in Skullyville, a large settlement that had sprung up around the Choctaw Agency. Both sites in 1847 were situated in Indian Territory.
Today they are in the state of Oklahoma, which was admitted as the forty-sixth state of the Union in 1907 and is an amalgamation of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory. Together the two tribes collected an amount in excess of $800.
The amount of money raised is itself impressive, especially when we consider that it was donated by communities that had relatively small populations at that time. When adjusted for inflation, $800 in 1847 was equivalent to a little over $24,000 in 2019, making the Native gift even more remarkable.
'Trail of tears and death’
The dollar amount is not the most striking element of this story, however. It is vital to remember that the money was also bequeathed by tribes that, like the Chickasaw, the Creek and the Seminole, had been ravished by the effects of the Indian Removal Act.
Signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830, that law was effectively proposed to evict the tribes from their ancestral lands in the east, thereby clearing the way for white settlers.
What followed was a period of unprecedented suffering in the history of the tribes, the majority of which experienced removal, depopulation, disease and untold pain throughout the 1830s and in the decades to follow.
As the Choctaws were the first tribe to be removed, one Choctaw Chief – most likely Nitakechi – described the journey from Mississippi to Indian Territory as the beginning of a ‘trail of tears and death.’ It should be noted that the Choctaws lost over one-quarter of their population on the journey.
Having forced Indian Removal upon the five tribes, Jackson’s Department of War oversaw an operation that was, as Choctaw historian Jacki Thompson Rand explains, ‘a massive failure of administrative, bureaucratic, and legal systems’ (Famine Pots 168).
A gift with profound effects
Left without blankets, adequate winter clothing, and sufficient food or medical supplies, the Choctaw experienced mass deaths and misery. It is now reckoned that 6,000 people died during the removal in total—fifteen percent of the tribe’s overall population.
As such, the Choctaw (and the Cherokee) were hardly well-placed to provide assistance to the Irish. Anelise Hanson Shrout reminds us that these communities ‘had limited financial and emotional resources to share with distant sufferers.’ She concludes that ‘[it] is difficult to imagine a people less well-positioned to act philanthropically’.
Nevertheless, they acted in exactly that way. Instead of reserving what funds they had in order to secure a great amount of life’s staples—be it food, housing, or other essential provisions required to survive in the new territory—the tribe made the altogether extraordinary decision to send the collected funds to Ireland.
Relatively little is known about the final destination of the monies collected. It seems likely that the funds were added to other collections received by the Relief Committee; much of the total was possibly disbursed to the Quakers, who was actively feeding the Irish poor, or simply used to defray the cost of shipping food directly to Ireland.
While that element of the story is somewhat lost to us, there is no doubting the profound effects that the gift had in the nineteenth century—many of which endure today.
An ability to endure
As well as reflecting the empathy and generosity of the Choctaw people, the gift was also a symbol of other important realities. It was testament to the tribe's strength and ability to endure; the donation underscored the fact that Jackson’s policies had failed to annihilate the tribes—communities who, in the President’s opinion, were an impediment to the United States’ rapid advance 'in population, wealth, and power’ (President Jackson’s Message to Congress On Indian Removal ).
The famine funds were also shared at a moment of international collaboration; having rewritten the constitution and reestablished the tribal government in 1834, the Choctaw in Skullyville made the decision to give to the Irish in their capacity as autonomous, self-governing benefactors. Again, this is about a nation’s strength as well as the Choctaw culture of giving. Ima, giving, is a cultural lifeway and shows a Choctawan sense of prosperity in ancient times, as in the present.
It also seems likely that those gathered in Indian Territory would have had more than a passing sense of their shared historical experiences. On one level, the widespread eviction of Ireland’s small tenant farmers was an uncomfortable echo of the tribes’ removal from their homelands.
On another level, official government responses to the hardships that ensued were often strikingly similar. Just as Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the British Treasury viewed the Famine as a ‘great opportunity’ and an ‘effectual remedy’ to the ‘social evil found in Ireland,’ Jackson suggested that the Removal Act would allow the tribes to ‘cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.’
Of course, aspects of mid-nineteenth century imperialism and providentialism in the United States. and Ireland were shaped by the beliefs that had informed English and British colonialism from the time of Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Hakluyt.
Today the Choctaw-Irish gift exchange is a vital reminder of the power arising from reciprocal relationships and moments of collective generosity and compassion. Celebrated and memorialized in various contexts—ranging from Alex Pentak’s stunning sculpture Kindred Spirits to the Irish government’s decision to establish a scholarship fund for Choctaw students to study in Ireland—the famine donation has a powerful legacy.
This legacy became especially apparent during the coronavirus pandemic, when a huge number of donations were sent from Ireland to the people of the Navajo Nation. Especially hard-hit by the medical emergency, the Navajo needed urgent assistance in a way that the Choctaw and the Cherokee did not.
The majority of Irish contributors to the Navajo/Hopi fund acknowledged the Choctaw gift, with one writing simply: ‘A famine doesn't end in a day. Ireland will be here for you as long as you need the support.’
This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.