The Choctaw Native American tribe and Irish people have a complex and nuanced relationship that has stretched across the centuries. Their histories of displacement and recovery inform and strengthen one another by providing a system of cooperation, generosity, and faith in the resilience of the human spirit.
Eyewitness accounts of the Trail of Tears that the Choctaw had suffered through in many ways mimic those that came out of the Irish Famine. Ironically, it would be this event where the two people’s met. Upon hearing of the tragedy of the famine in Ireland, many Choctaw leaders banded together and raised $170 as a generous donation to the Irish people.
The Choctaw, like the Irish have suffered through a rough history of disease, famine, rebirth, and integration. They banded together as a powerful Native American group in the 17th Century. Even though they were increasingly marginalized, they supported colonial independence during the Revolutionary War, and were later termed one of the “Five Civilized Nations” in the 19th century due to their adoption of many Anglo-American habits.
This unfortunately was unable to curtail the wave of westward expansion under the guise of Manifest Destiny headed by President Andrew Jackson. Beginning in 1831 through a series of unfair treaties, the Choctaw Nation were forced off of their land and further west into the desolate Oklahoma wild country. This episode is referred to as the “Trail of Tears” due to the treacherous weather conditions and severe loss of life. Alexis de Tocqueville, the influential French historian and philosopher was on hand to witness the tragedy, writing in his Democracy in America, “in the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung.”
This same wringing of the heart has continued to strengthen the bond of the Irish and the Choctaws. Beginning in the 1990s, history and memory were united as a number of celebrations honored the role of the Choctaws in the Famine. Irish activists and Choctaw leaders took part in the first annual Famine Walk at Doolough in Co. Mayo. This was later reciprocated with a 500 mile trek from Oklahoma to Mississippi in 1992. Then President Mary Robinson was also honored as a Choctaw Chief. The Famine Walk continues today.
A version of this article appeared in the December / January 2015 issue of Irish America.
* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified the national affiliation of artist America Meredith. Meredith is a member of the Cherokee Nation, which also contributed to the relief effort of the Irish during the Famine.