In 1847 the Choctaw Nation responded to a plea for help from a country far away across the ocean, by sending $710* to aid the victims of the Great Irish Famine. This immense act of human generosity, from one impoverished people to another over 150 years ago, is a beautiful, touching moment that should never be forgotten in the many volumes of untold history.
The Choctaw’s enormous sacrifice, and astonishing community response to help an unknown people, is truly inspiring. Merely sixteen years previously a forced relocation from their native Mississippi to Oklahoma, was imposed upon them by European settlers.
There is a wide variety of literature available focusing on the ties that bind Irish and American culture. I could have chosen one such book, or a famous piece of Irish literature, to review for my first post in the book’s category of this blog. Instead, I wish to introduce you to a wonderful children’s book which tells this little-known, but universal tale of courage, wisdom and forgiveness.
“The Long March: The Choctaw’s Gift to Irish Famine Relief,” by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick is a beautiful children’s picture book. It’s tale of sacrifice and tribal values, respect for memories, and the human quest for social justice, deeply affected me when I first read it to my seven-year old son.
The synopsis, on the book’s cover, encapsulates the story”s message – the age-old human need for forgiveness. A young Choctaw boy, Choona, struggles to understand his people’s desire to help a people he sees as their persecutors.
“Choona is a young Choctaw. Word has reached his tribe that there is a famine in Ireland. From what precious little they have, the Choctaw collect $710* to help the starving Irish. As Choona learns the terrible truth about his own tribe’s Long March, he must decide for himself whether to answer another people’s faraway cry for help”…… The Long March.
Through the wisdom of Talihoyo, his great-grandmother, Choona grows to understand this act of kindness demonstrates his people’s faith in the promise of life, and the hope for a brighter future. Her words are a memorial to the past and have taught me to rejoice in the generosity of the human spirit.
“I am half-blind, but when I close my eyes the faces of the dead come to me through the blackness. We have walked the trail of tears. The Irish people walk it now. We can help them as we could not help ourselves. Our help will be like an arrow shot through time. It will land many winters from now to wait as a blessing for our unborn generations”…. The Long March.
The author/illustrator, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, is Irish. She traveled to Oklahoma to meet with the elders of the Choctaw Nation before writing this beautiful book. Her work with tribal experts is clearly evident in the visual and cultural details of her realistic illustrations.
This is a small piece of Irish-American history that should always be remembered. This book is an emotional and moving tribute to the courage and wisdom of the Choctaw Nation.
I am currently completing a historical fiction novel set at the time of the Irish famine. Here is a little excerpt from a letter written by my heroine, describing the trail of displaced, rural Irish, victims of eviction, working their way towards the cities and ports. This piece reflects an Irish trail of tears, a shared experience with the Choctaw.
“The rural outcasts move methodically towards the Cork road, passing shuttered windows and barred doors. They plod onwards, with bone-weary drudgery, towards the city. Merging into a slow train of refugees, the destitute, take one weary step after the other, towards an unknown destiny, carrying whatever they can salvage on their backs. No hope beckons on the horizon of a famished people.
We are all journeying towards death, nearing our destination, every moment of every day. How long our journey will take has, until now, been the great unknown. This era of desolation has changed everything for the Irish poor. Hundreds of thousands of my countrymen have only a few more inches to crawl, before their possibilities vanish forever. The future never offered much to the Irish, but now even our meager dreams, have disappeared into nothingness.”
Their tattered dreams were caught in the dream catchers of a suffering nation far, far away.
The Choctaw gave when they too had nothing, because they recognized the similarities between their experience and that of the Irish. Both peoples endured the terror of conquest, knew the pain of loss, of forced migration, exile, suffering, starvation, and suppression.
In June 1995, the Irish President, Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, to personally thank them for their gift on behalf of all Irish people. Her words on that occasion speak of our eternal gratitude and understanding:
Ireland was “thousands of miles away, in no way linked to the Choctaw Nation until then, the only link being a common humanity, a common sense of another people suffering as the Choctaw Nation had suffered when being removed from their tribal land”…..Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, 1990 to 1997.
In the 1990’s members of the Choctaw Nation traveled to Ireland to participate in an annual commemorative Famine Walk in the west of Ireland. Gary Whitedeer, an elder of the Oklahoma Choctaw, explained to the Irish President “that taking part in that walk and remembering the past between the Choctaw Nation and Irish people and relinking our peoples, is completing the circle.”
And so, let us complete the circle of history, by remembering the past. We can celebrate this incredible bond of shared humanity through our own personal acts of loving kindness, just as the Choctaw Nation did, many moons ago.
Slan agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
*In this post I have noted the Choctaw donation to the Irish people as $710, although many articles and this book, The Long March, refer to the sum as $170. The Wikipedia page on The Choctaw Nation attributes this error to a misprint in Angie Debo’s, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic.