Simple Acts of Kindness

In these scary times we’re all living through, I find myself searching the newspapers and airwaves for some feel-good stories. I am fortunate enough to live in a small town where neighbors know one another, and look out for each other, but that’s not the case everywhere. And now with social distancing making it even harder to reach out to those in need, a true crisis is emerging in America’s hot spots for COVID-19.

One of the most deeply affected areas is the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. It houses more than 173,000 residents, and currently has more cases of COVID-19 per capita than anyplace else in the country. Last week, the statistics were over 4,000 reported cases and 161 deaths recorded. The Res is an uninviting place under normal circumstances, with its red dirt roads and lack of infrastructure. The Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation is lacking in basics that most Americans take for granted: clean water, electricity, decent roads, broadband access, and waste disposal.

Not exactly a place to find a feel-good story.

Especially not one that has its roots in another catastrophic event—Ireland’s great potato famine, which began in 1845 and lasted for six years. The famine caused starvation and disease but was viewed by the British as “a mechanism for reducing surplus population…the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the Irish people.” Britain continued to export government produced foodstuffs from Ireland, leaving only barren land suitable for potato farming and not much else. When famine struck, the Irish had few people willing to come to their aid.

However, 4,000 miles away, the American Choctaw Indian nation, who had suffered the vagrancies of government tyranny only a few years prior, heard of the fate of the Irish and felt a kindred spirit.

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circa 1833: A Choctaw Indian encampment on the Mississippi River. Original Artwork: Painting by Karl Bodmer. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Having suffered the long march from Mississippi to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears during which 4,000 of their tribesmen perished, they understood the anguish of those most in need. Together, they raised funds to help the Irish in their time of crisis. The Choctaw were a poor people, yet they managed to come up with $170 to help with what became known in Ireland as The Great Hunger. This money went to the Memphis Irish Relief Committee, then to the General Irish Relief Committee in New York. It was then dispensed in Ireland by members of the Quaker community. In today’s dollars, the contribution would be worth around $5,000.

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Trail of Tears

The Irish people were so touched by the donation that County Cork commissioned a sculpture of nine eagle feathers to commemorate the Choctaw nation and their contribution, which was  dedicated in 2017. In 2018, the Irish Prime Minister initiated a scholarship program to allow members of the Choctaw nation to study in Ireland.

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Choctaw Memorial Sculpture in Cork County, Ireland

Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, the ties between Ireland and the Native Americans remain. Hundreds of residents in Ireland have already contributed to a fund to provide aid to two native American nations who are suffering the most. Over $1.8 million has been raised to help provide residents of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation with clean water, food and health supplies. Thirty percent of the Navajo population does not have access to running water. When you have to ration your daily use of water, washing your hands frequently loses precedence over the basic functions of cooking, drinking, and waste removal.

One of the contributors explained his rationale for giving was based on the actions of the Choctaws during the Great Hunger: “It always struck me for its kindness and generosity, and I see that too in the Irish people. It seemed the right time to try and pay it back in kind.”

A simple act of kindness 173 years ago has come full circle.

To donate to the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Fund, visit https://www.nndoh.org/donate.html

Resources: 

https://www.choctawnation.com/Irish

http://www.choctawnation.com/bond-remains-strong-between-choctaw-and-irish

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/what-the-irish-did-for-and-to-the-choctaw-tribe-1.3423873

https://www.startribune.com/irish-return-a-173-year-old-favor-to-native-american-tribes/570508442/

https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/18/us/navajo-nation-infection-rate-trnd/index.html

https://www.nndoh.org/donate.html

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One of the books in Becky Lower’s Revolutionary War series features a Passamaquoddy Native American, a tribe from Maine, who managed to remain on the East coast despite the huge influx of Europeans in America. Her first book in this new series will be released in late June.