Michael Sullivan, who comes from an Ojibwe mother and an Irish father, sees similarities between the two cultures in that there are those fighting to revitalize their languages in a world dominated by English.
“In our community, we’re working against the clock documenting as much of our language as we can from our last generation of Native speakers,” he said.
Sullivan works as an Ojibwe linguistics instructor at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Hayward. He said the Ojibwe language is not just a tool for communication, but is essential to be used in Ojibwe ceremonies, songs and other rituals vital to their culture.
“A big part of who we are is really tied to our language,” Sullivan said.
He spoke at an online event this month called Anamchairde “Kindred Spirits,” hosted by the Celtic Junction Arts Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The event celebrated the cultural friendship and solidarity between Ireland and people of the First Nations of America and Canada.
That friendship was renewed last year when the Irish government and individual Irish donors raised more than $3 million for the Navajo and Hopi reservations, which were some of the hardest hit areas during the early days of the pandemic.
The campaign was in response to an event in 1847 when members of the Choctaw Nation had sent relief aid to the Irish after hearing about their suffering during the Great Potato Famine.
“The people of Ireland have never forgotten that huge gesture in our greatest time of need,” said Kevin Byrne, counsel general of the Irish Consulate of Chicago, in a video shown during the Anamchairde event.
The famine was the result of disastrous sustenance policies forced upon the Irish by the British in the 1800s, which relied too heavily on the production of a single crop, potatoes. When that crop failed because of a disease in successive years, about a million people starved to death, leading to great migrations to North America.
The Choctaw people themselves, along with many other Indigenous people, were suffering from starvation and disease after being forced from their lands to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears events. Thousands of people died during the forced relocations in the 1800s under the orders of President Andrew Jackson in blatant disregard of federal court rulings.
Byrne said both Irish and Indigenous peoples share similar histories in which land and language was lost to colonizers of a dominant state, but both continue to fight to revitalize their cultures.
The Anamchairde event also featured several music performances and one Irish ballad sung of how Irish immigrants serving as soldiers were some of those who had been ordered to force the Choctaw people from their land, but told the Choctaw of their own plights back in Ireland and the Choctaw showed a charity not shown to them.
Sullivan’s family also performed as the Sullivan Squad and joined Irish performers in songs that blended Irish and Ojibwe beats.
Several viewers on Facebook commented how the sounds were like the heartbeats of the two cultures beating together.
Margaret Noodin, a professor of American and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, read her poem for Anamchairde that tells of the births of two pre-Christian heroes important to Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe, and Irish cultures.
They are Wenabozho, or Nanabozho, for the Ojibwe and Cu Chulainn for the Irish.
“Long ago when the stones told stories/Cu Chulainn and Wenabozho were born/and still today they are remembered/near the Great Lakes and Lough Neagh,” reads some of her poem.
“Both characters trace their narrative origin to oral stories kept by communal retelling and eventually made the transition to texts edited by colonial erasure, religious syncretism and changing rhetoric style,” Noodin said about the piece. “Using poetry and translation as forms of methodology, I provide a close reading that is both comparison and contrast.”
She said she has long been interested in the languages and cultures of her Irish and Anishinaabe ancestors who resisted assimilation and hopes to introduce more people to their stories, which include lessons that everyone can appreciate.
Natalie O’Shea, director of the Celtic Arts Junction Center, said organizers are planning more events that celebrate the solidarity between Irish and Indigenous cultures.
Anamchairde was shown live on March 12, but can be viewed for free on the organization’s Facebook page, facebook.com/CelticJunction.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.