Happy St. Patrick's Day from the National Museum of the American Indian: A Gift from the Choctaw Nation
George Catlin (1796–1872). Ball-play of the Choctaw: Ball-up, 1846–50. Oil on canvas; 65.4 x 81.4 cm. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. Smithsonian American Art Museum 1985.66.428A. In 1834 Catlin watched Choctaws playing stickball during his travels in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
On St. Patrick’s Day, the museum would like to call attention to a remarkable gift from the people of the Choctaw Nation to the people of Ireland during the Irish famine. We asked Judy Allen, executive director of public relations for the Choctaw Nation, to tell the history of what she describes as “an act that shaped tribal culture."
The Choctaw people have a history of helping others. Only sixteen years after their long, sad march along the Trail of Tears, the Choctaws learned of people starving to death in Ireland. With great empathy, in 1847 Choctaw individuals made donations totaling $710 to assist the Irish people during the famine. It was an amazing gesture. Though they had meager resources, they gave on behalf of others in greater need.
In 1995, Irish President Mary Robinson, later UN Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to thank the Choctaws for their generosity toward the Irish, a people with whom she noted their only link was “a common humanity, a common sense of another people suffering as the Choctaw Nation had suffered when being removed from their tribal land."
President Robinson also acknowledged the many Choctaws who have visited Ireland to take part in commemorating the Famine Walk. “Earlier in the month I met one of the members of the tribe, the artist Gary Whitedeer,” she said. “He explained to me 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. I have used that expression recently at a major conference on world hunger in New York. I spoke of the generosity of the Choctaw people and this idea of completing the circle.”
This charitable attitude resonates still today when crisis situations occur across the world. In 2001, tribal people made a huge contribution to the Firefighters Fund after the Twin Towers attack in New York City and have since made major contributions to Save the Children and the Red Cross in 2004 for tsunami relief, in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina relief, and more recently, for victims of the Haiti earthquake. Good works are not exclusive to humanitarian organizations and funds. The Choctaw Nation received the United States National Freedom Award in 2008 for the efforts made in support of members of the National Guard and Reserve and their families. There are countless stories of Choctaw individuals who have looked past their own needs to help their neighbors.