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Paying it forward: The Irish-Navajo gift exchange one year on

Last May, as the spread of Covid-19 began to take a toll on the Navajo Nation, authorities in the region realised that government support wasn’t forthcoming. So plans were put in place to raise their own funds.

In Phoenix, a member of Arizona’s Irish Cultural Center suggested running a collection to help out. He was married to a member of the Navajo Nation and, as it turned out, several other community members were too. As a result, the idea got strong support.

“We have the space and the resources, so we jumped into action fairly quickly,” said Ciara Archer, Operations Director at the Irish Cultural Center and McClelland Library.

Over two weekends in May, the collection hub in downtown Phoenix received 5,000 donations, which included everything from water and hand sanitizer, through to clothes and pet food. With so many supplies to handle, the National Guard came to pick up the aid with two 50-foot trailers. The most urgent provisions, like face coverings, were delivered straight to Window Rock by aircraft.

“Native American culture is very present in Arizona and it’s our mission to connect with and support cultures beyond Celtic,” said Ciara Archer. “When you think back to what the Choctaw Nation did for the Irish in the 1850s, it was a no-brainer to repay the favour as best we could.”

This thinking wasn’t unique to the Irish American community. At the same time, halfway across the world, Irish citizens began donating to the GoFundMe campaigns launched by the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Nation. At least €2.5 million was donated by people living in Ireland, according to The Irish Times.

Window Rock sandstone formation, January 2019. Photo: Steven Baltakatei Sandoval

Donation inspiration

The story that inspired so many donations dates back to the height of the Great Famine in 1847. When members of the Choctaw Nation heard what was happening in Ireland, they sent $170 across the Atlantic to help those who were starving.

Just 16 years earlier, the Choctaw tribes had begun to experience their own hardships as a campaign of forced migration drove them west of the Mississippi River to modern-day Oklahoma. This was all part of the Indian Removal Act, which was brought into law by US president Andrew Jackson.

These relocations became known as the ‘Trail of Tears’ because most Native Americans were forced to make the journey by foot – and many of them died of disease and famine along the way.

However, more than one donation was made. A doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania recently discovered other instances of tribes sending money over to Ireland. Conor Donnan, who is originally from Belfast, discovered documents which show that the Choctaw of Skullyville donated $170, while the Choctaw of Doaksville sent over $150 too. The Cherokee Nation also raised $200 at the time.

A shared history

Despite the distance separating the Irish and the Native Americans, they have many things in common. At the behest of an expanding state, they both experienced military aggression, the loss of land and threats to their culture.

They both saw their populations dwindle as a result of disease, famine and migration as well. But, on a more positive note, both peoples remained resilient in the face of all this.

It’s true that some Irish emigrants were complicit in the suffering of Native Americans. In the late 1800s, some of them moved to the lands that had been cleared in Arizona to start new lives. Many even hoped to find their fortune through mining.

In fact, the story goes that members of the Choctaw Nation heard about the Great Famine from an Irish soldier who was involved in their removal to the west. Although other sources say it was an American soldier.

However, it is probably also true that many Irish people identify and empathise with the plight of Native Americans because of their own nation’s history of oppression.

Over the years, this may have contributed to the work of Irish Americans like James Mooney and Jeremiah Curtin.

The former was the son of famine era emigrants who studied Irish customs before looking to that of Native American’s. He became known as the ‘The Indian Man’ after living among the Cherokee in the late 1800s. The latter was also an ethnographer who collected both Native American and Irish language folklore.

James Mooney, American Anthropologist.

What does the future hold?

The move by ordinary Irish people to donate to the Navajo and Hopi nations is just the latest development in a connection that began back in 1847.

Since then, president Eamon de Valera was made an honorary chieftain by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe in Wisconsin. He visited them during his 1919 tour of the US to raise funds and support for the Irish War of Independence.

More recently, Chieftain Gary Batton and a delegation from the Choctaw Nation visited county Cork for the unveiling of the ‘Kindred Spirits’ monument which honours the link between the two nations.

The Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix believes last year’s experience has definitely helped deepen relations between Arizona’s Irish and Native American communities. But, for now, no more future collaborations are planned.

Doreen McPaul, the Navajo Nation’s Attorney General who herself comes from both Irish and Navajo heritage, said in a YouTube video posted last May: “My hope is that the Navajo Nation will be able to pay it forward in honour of Ireland someday.”

At EPIC, we tell the story of how Irish people have impacted the world. To discover more stories of charity and giving throughout our history, plan your visit today.

Header: Built in Midleton, Co Cork, a sculpture to remember the aid given by the Chocktaw Nation during the Great Famine. Photo by Gavin Sheridan.