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.

Navajo Nation territory, which includes parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, is roughly the same size as Ireland. However, its population is widely scattered and, when the pandemic hit, sad and scary stories began to surface of people passing away all alone.

At the other end of the spectrum, the virus was spreading quickly across generations of families who lived in close proximity – often in the same household or sometimes in homes just yards away from each other.

A surprising source of support 

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 $3 million was donated by people living in Ireland, according to Doreen McPaul – the Attorney General of the Navajo Nation. Donations are still arriving and Irish people have contributed a significant chunk of the more than $10 million raised to date.

“People sent us donations through the website, but we also got lots of mail,” said McPaul. “Someone [in Ireland] who couldn’t get to the bank because of the lockdown sent us euros… the outpouring of support was just overwhelming.”

This generosity was spurred on by prominent Irish figures like Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hothouse Flowers and Senator-cum-astronaut Mark Kelly.

“The Irish embassy here has been great too,” commented Jason Ryan of the Irish Cultural Center. “Daniel Mulhall, the Irish ambassador for the US, has been fantastic in supporting the appeal… The response from Ireland was huge.”

McPaul, who helped establish the fund and the policy overlooking it, says all donations have gone towards Covid-19 relief and recovery. Some of the proceeds were spent on isolation care which was critical in slowing down the spread of the virus.

With the help of this support, the Navajo Nation went from having the highest per capita coronavirus infection rate in the US to cutting cases and becoming a model for vaccination rollout.

Donation inspiration

The story that inspired so many Irish people to make a donation 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.

The Irish of the Navajo Nation

Growing up on the Navajo reservation, McPaul and her sister, Denise Ryan, didn’t hear about these tales of generosity. But they have their own personal connection with Ireland. Their father Arthur Kerr Hobson Jr. has roots in both Armagh and Laois where his grandparents were dedicated Quakers and advocates of Irish culture.

Kerr Hobson Jr. was born in Manhattan before moving to Idaho where his parents taught children at a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans. When the camp closed, they moved to the Navajo reservation to teach at a boarding school.

“Around this time, these schools were starting to legitimately educate Indian children and allow them to maintain a little bit of their own culture,” said Ryan. “My grandparents, being great Quakers, wanted to go where they could help.”

So that’s how her blonde-haired, blue-eyed father ended up growing up on the reservation in an area known as Fort Defiance. Later on, he learned to speak Navajo and went on to spend his own career as an educator here.

He even has his own favourite rock formation. The teapot rock structure which appears along the narrow road leading to Phoenix always reminds McPaul of both her father and her grandfather.

For McPaul, who has an Irish tricolour hanging in her office, the recent generosity shown by Irish people has been a source of pride. “Growing up on Navajo Nation and being half white wasn’t always awesome,” she explained. “I’ve been able to celebrate that part of my culture in a positive way and it’s been nice for those from dual cultures.”

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.

“We have a lot in common,” said McPaul, citing similarities between the two nations in terms of art, textiles, music and farmland. She was particularly struck by these likenesses during a visit to the Aran Islands: “That place is special in my heart because it reminds me of [the reservation]”.

It’s also 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 fortune by mining the land.

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.

Denise Ryan and her husband Jason, who originally hails from county Clare, also ponder the connections between Irish soldiers and some Navajo names. On the reservation, Irish-sounding names like Gorman are common and they suspect it might date back to the Trail of Tears when Navajos were assigned the names of their commanding officers.

“They consider it a Navajo name… But that’s where we think some of those Irish names came from,”  said Jason. “The Irish were involved in moving out the native tribes. To get the land or get US citizenship, they had to do this dirty deed. Thankfully, we are on the other side of it now.”

Forging positive connections

However, it is 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.

Mooney 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. Curtin was also an ethnographer who collected both Native American and Irish language folklore.

It was also an Irishman in America that brought the historic donation to the attention of the public. Author Don Mullan from county Derry was in upstate New York to give a lecture when he heard the tale of the Choctaw’s $170 donation. According to his blog, the story struck a chord with him because it showed the humanity of the native Indians who were historically presented as uncivilised by their colonisers.

In 1989, Mullan was the first Irish person to travel to Oklahoma to thank the Choctaw for their generosity and support. Along with his father-in-law, he invited members of the tribe to lead the annual Afri Famine Walk in county Mayo. The following year, their participation in the event was broadcast worldwide, raising awareness of the 150-year-old donation in the process.

Photograph of James Mooney and American Anthropologist who studied both Irish and Native American Cherokee cultures in the late 1800s

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). In 1995, then president Mary Robinson also became a chieftain after she travelled to Oklahoma to thank the Choctaw for their recently uncovered donation.

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. And, when Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach, he set up a scholarship for members of the Choctaw Nation who want to study in Ireland.

Now it looks like long-term connections will be forged with the Navajo Nation too. 

The Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix believes last year’s experience has definitely helped deepen relations between Arizona’s Irish and Native American communities. Further collaborations are in the pipeline too.

Some supporters of the community’s fundraising efforts have already received invites to Window Rock, while McPaul hopes that Navajo Nation leaders will pay a visit to Ireland too.

Regardless, it seems likely that she’ll make another transatlantic trip at some point. “I’ve an invitation to every county in Ireland,” she said. The same goes for Denise and Paul Ryan whose four children are both Irish citizens and members of the Navajo Nation.

“There’s always been a connection in terms of shared history and culture,” said Denise. “It was never talked about… I love that it’s out in the open now.”

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 Choctaw Nation during the Great Famine. Photo by Gavin Sheridan.