Celtic Junction Arts Review

Kindred Strangers who became Kindred Spirits

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin

The author in front of Kindred Spirit sculpture.
Alex Pentek, artist.

It can be seen any time of the year or any time of the day at Bailick Park, Midleton, South-East County Cork, just nine and a half miles east of Cork City itself. Aptly named Kindred Spirits, it is an impressive sculpture by Alex Pentek. It consists of nine twenty foot high eagle wings which have been beautifully conjured from sheet steel and arranged in the shape of a bowl. It was commissioned by Cork County Council to be unveiled exactly 170 years after a donation of $170 was made by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to the Irish Nation in 1847, Black ‘47. Pentek made over 20,000 painstaking welds before his creation was fully realised. This was an extraordinary donation from the Choctaw people and would amount to about $5,500 today, inflation-adjusted. Its symbolism by far outweighs its monetary value.

It was on the 23rd March 1847, the call for assistance for the Irish people dying of starvation was heard in Skullyville, Oklahoma. $170 was collected and duly sent to the Society of Friends, the Quakers, in Ireland who were operating soup kitchens for the desitute at this time. The humanitarian crisis in Ireland was caused by a combination of the way in which the Irish were being governed and the repeated failure of the potato crops on which so many relied almost exclusively. Potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) in successive years caused widescale death and led to mass exodus between the years of 1845 and 1851. Somewhere around one million died and more than a million were forced to emigrate. As the potatoes rotted in the ground the stricken Irish died too on their land with many being buried in mass graves. And yet, in the face of all this death, starvation, disease and forced emigration, the exportation of grain, livestock and vegetables across the Irish sea to England not only continued but increased. Starving Irish men, women and children struggling to reach the ports were known to have walked past vessels in the canals laden with consumer products which were England-bound. The population of Ireland has yet to recover fully; numerically, psychologically, or spiritually.

Because of their plight at this time the Irish must have felt abandoned and friendless. 4,000 miles to the west, however, the story of the acute suffering in Ireland was being relayed to the people of the Choctaw Nation by missionaries and their matriarchal instincts were stirred.

"1847 - A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery" Book Cover Art

Their generosity was remarkable. Only sixteen years before this the people of the Choctaw Nation had themselves been forced to undertake a ‘Trail of Tears’; a long punishing trail of over 500 miles. According to Irish writer, Turtle Bunbury, in his book 1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery, published by Gill Books in 2016, in the region of 12,500 Choctaw were coerced into making the perilous journey from their homelands in modern-day Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to the whereabouts of Oklahoma today. Somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 souls perished along the way. These Choctaw Trails of Tears occurred between the years 1831 and 1833. The young and the old, representing the future and the memory of the Choctaw nation, made up a disproportionate number of those to die. Many more native peoples were also to be cleared off their lands to make room for white Anglo-European settlers to set up their all-important cotton plantations and to allow for the full exploitation of the evil but lucrative use of slaves.

Trails of Tears - map

Many Native American nations were cornered into signing one-sided treaties; treaties which later became known to them as ‘bad paper’. It was with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek signed in 1830 and enabled by the Indian Removal Act, that the Choctaw people were doomed to be cruelly removed from their native lands. They exchanged 11 million acres of their ancestral lands for 15 million acres of land to the west. Many more trails of tears were to follow. What the US Government did to these first nation peoples was wrong. It was evil; a dark stain on the soul of the USA and barely glanced over in schools today. Some US leaders at the time believed that nothing should be let stand in the way of their God inspired plan of expansion, not least the people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia. This, the expanionists held, was the natural outworking of their manifest destiny. The production of ‘cotton was king’ after all.

Sir Robert Peel by Henry William Pickersgill.
Prince George, 1855 by Roger Fenton – The Art Institute of Chicago.

In Ireland, shortly after the ‘Indian Removal Act’ had been strongly enforced on native peoples in the USA, untold suffering was unfolding. The English Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, and subsequently, Lord John Russell’s Whig Government, made their attempts to explain away the failure of the Irish potato crops and its horrendous consequences on the poor tenant farmers and their families. Some even blamed it all on ‘the will of God’. Despite being the most powerful of global empires on which the sun never set, the British Government refused to intervene in any truly meaningful way to help the stricken Irish on their doorstep. They adhered instead to their policy of laissez-faire capitalism. The Duke of Cambridge, who was the uncle of Queen Victoria, herself known to many as the famine queen, went so far as to suggest that the Irish could eat grass for there was surely plenty of that in Ireland. There were, heartbreakingly, many reports of the starving Irish dying by the roadside with stains of green around their mouths in last-gasp attempts to extract some desperately needed nutrition from grass, but, to no avail.

Choctaw Village near the Chefuncte, by Francois Bernard, 1869, Peabody Museum – Harvard University.

The Choctaw Nation are from the ancient Mississippian culture. They are custodians of a rich language and culture. Their folklore is thought to be over 10,000 years old. Like other native peoples, they were very much in tune with nature and the elements. They possessed deep spiritual roots.  But despite these attributes, the Choctaw were, as was the case with many other First Nations of America and Canada, to endure centuries of attacks on their way of life and to lose sovereignty over their ancestral lands. The removal of the Choctaw people and countless people of other first nations would be executed under state sanctioned law. The European colonisers, for their part, felt justified in their actions. They would after all be creating a Christian country all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific irrespective of the self-evident rights of these indigenous peoples. They were answering a higher call.

Portrait of Jackson by Earl, 1830.

The President at the time of the forced removals in the 1830s was Andrew Jackson. He served two terms. He ran for the presidency on the very ‘Indian Removal Act’ ticket. Jackson was himself of Ulster-Scots ancestry. His people originated from County Antrim, in the province of Ulster.  He would therefore have been aware of the trauma caused by colonization to the nation being occupied. Major General Jackson, as he was previously, had been helped to annihilate the British Army at a crucial battle in New Orleans in 1815 by the very Choctaw he would later forcibly remove from their lands. They had fought side by side to remove the yoke of the British Crown. Soon the loyalty of the Choctaw braves to Jackson would be forgotten by him like eaten bread.

It had been arranged that one third of the Choctaw people would be cleared west from their homelands each year from 1831 to 1833. It was President Jackson himself, who signed the legislation allowing the US government to acquire the valuable land from the Choctaw and those lands of other first nation peoples. On that first of three Trails of Tears, the Choctaw people were to endure rain, floods, freezing winds, heavy snow and a lack of food, clothing and shelter. The timing of this removal was not chosen wisely if the avoidance of loss of life was a priority with deepest winter approaching. Stagecoaches which had been promised were hopelessly lacking. The Choctaw had been instructed to leave their livestock and possessions behind as these were to be provided in their new land upon arrival. This commitment like many others was, it seems, welched upon or delayed interminably by the authorities. Accounts exist of white settlers looting the properties of those native Americans in the wake of their genocidal removal.  Loss of life on the Choctaw Trail of Tears was deplorable due to the length and severity of the journey and the lack of preparation and provisions. These concerns were undoubtedly the responsibility of state authorities.  On the second forced removal of the Choctaw, in 1832, valuable lessons were clearly not learned or wilfully ignored from the first removal leading again to the unnecessary loss of life.  On top of the many hazards of nature, the Choctaw were, as was the case with many other native peoples, to fall victim to the white man’s diseases such as cholera, dysentery and whooping cough on their perilous and prolonged journeys and upon arrival also. The 1833 Trail of Tears was smaller in scale but no less traumatic for the Choctaw.

Sixteen years after they had suffered their Trails of Tears, the plight of the Irish was to resonate with the Choctaw at a very deep level. The parallels of the Irish sufferings with their own were obvious. Both peoples had lost ownership of their ancestral lands. Both had lost relatives and friends to starvation and harsh weather conditions. Many from both nations would be forced to leave their native place, for them their sacred place, forever.

Jessica Militante (right) and Chayla Rowley Courtesy of Jessie Militante, the first recipient of the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship.

In 1995, Mary Robinson, the first matriarchal President of Ireland and later UN Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the Choctaw people and had the honour of being a Choctaw chieftain conferred on her. President Michael D. Higgins welcomed delegates of the Choctaw Nation to Áras an Uactaráin, his official residence, in June 2017, at the time of the unveiling of the Kindred Spirits sculpture by Alex Pentek. In 2018, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced the Choctaw Scholarship scheme to allow Choctaw students to study in Ireland, a scheme that will continue in perpetuity. In 2007, members of the Choctaw donated $8,000 to the Shell to Sea campaign focussed on the native Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of County Mayo. In 1992, a group from Ireland walked 600 miles along the reverse route of the Choctaw Trail of Tears and in so doing raised $1,000 for world hunger for every $1 donated by the Choctaw in 1847. In the Spring of 2020, when the Corona Virus was disproportionately impacting on the native peoples, it was Irish donors who were to the fore in helping to support the Navajo and Hopi nations to deal with the ravages of Covid-19. Around $7.2m has been raised in that GoFundMe campaign with donors leaving many messages summed up by this one, ‘From Ireland with Love’.

Choctaw girls in 1868. Smithsonian Institution.

Out of a common humanity and suffering these two ancient and aboriginal nations were to form a bond, a bond which is being strengthened every year and will not, it seems, be diminished by the passing of time.

There are those alive today who would not be alive without the Choctaw donation allowing their ancestors to survive the Great Hunger in Ireland. The difference between survival and death in those hungry years in Ireland often came down to the kindness of strangers. Today the Irish people themselves are recognised as being amongst the most charitable nations in Europe through their support of organisations such as Trócaire, Bóthar and Goal.

It is highly appropriate therefore that we have now a monument in County Cork to commemorate physically the hugely symbolic gift of kindred strangers who became kindred spirits. These eagle wings stand together in a protective circle. They remind us of how the Choctaw stood with the Irish and offered them much needed support in their time of greatest need. This was an act of solidarity by far off people who knew themselves what it meant to suffer. In memory of the Choctaw act of kindness, the Irish nation seems intent on reciprocating at every possible opportunity for generations to come.

Choctaw Memorial in County Cork. Photo by Gavin Sheridan.

On the 12th of March 2021, Aonach Mhacha, Irish language and cultural center in Armagh, Ireland, teams up with their sister center, Celtic Junction Arts Center, to make an online presentation inspired and informed by the story of the Choctaw donation. The event is entitled Anamchairde/Kindred Spirits: Let The Circle Be Wide – Celebrating & Rekindling The Friendship Between Indigenous & Irish Cultures and is part of this year’s Seachtain na Gaeilge (international Irish language festival). It will be a truly international collaboration featuring song, poetry, music, imagery and discussion from guests and artists from Ireland, USA & Canada with a specific emphasis on giving expression to authentic indigenous languages and cultures.