The coronavirus crisis has highlighted a special, little known bond between the people of Ireland and Native Americans. On March 15, a group of Native American organizers launched a GoFundMe campaign called the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. To date, the effort has raised over $2.6 million, and most of that has come from donors in Ireland. Why? Because in 1847, during the worst of the Great Famine that claimed 1 million Irish lives, members of the Choctaw Nation in the United States scraped together $170 (about $5,000 in today’s money) and sent it as a gesture of solidarity to their brethren across the Atlantic. The impoverished Choctaws had recently lost thousands of tribe members during the Trail Of Tears forced migration.
Messages of unity
Many of the thousands of Irish people who have donated to the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund have shared messages of unity with Native Americans. Here are just a few notes that were posted in the hour prior to the publication of this article.
You helped Ireland all those years ago and I hope my donation helps your noble cause. I’m honoured to see all the support you have from the people of Ireland as a result.Jonathan Neville, donor
The chance to make a small contribution and help to repay the magnificent gesture your people made to the Irish people, in Our time of need, is overwhelming. Thank you. It’s a beautiful thing and I hope and pray that you all come through it. Go raibh míle maith agat.Mark Rooney, donor
From a very young child, my mother spoke of the generosity of the Choctaw nation to the Irish people. May this generosity be returned tenfold.Roisin Pett, donor
Challenging circumstances on the reservations
Organizers of the Relief Fund describe the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and the Hopi Reservation in Arizona as “extreme food deserts” with few grocery marts to serve thousands of people. Additionally, many of the residents do not have running water. These shortages compound the coronavirus risk for these communities which have high numbers of elderly, diabetic, and cancer-afflicted individuals. Furthermore, organizers say that over 50% of the people on both reservations are unemployed. The money raised will go toward providing food, water, essential goods, and necessary services to the most vulnerable members of these communities.
The Great Famine and the Trail of Tears
The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, occurred when a fungus-like organism wiped out one-half of Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 and three-fourths of the crops in the subsequent seven years. Potatoes were the primary food source for millions of Irish farmers at that time. The British government, which ruled Ireland, offered minimal relief. By 1852, the blight had “resulted in the death of roughly one million Irish from starvation and related causes, with at least another million forced to leave their homeland as refugees.”
The Trail Of Tears is the name for the forced migration of Native Americans from ancestral lands in the American southeast to designated territories west of the Mississippi River. In the 1830s President Andrew Jackson advanced a policy of “Indian Removal” on behalf of white cotton farmers who demanded access to lands the natives occupied. Tens of thousands of Choctaws, Creeks, Cherokees, Seminoles, and Chickasaw were compelled under the threat of military force to walk hundreds of miles “without any food, supplies or help from the government.” Thousands died from starvation and diseases including typhus, dysentery, and cholera.
On March 31 of this year, the Trump Administration controversially revoked the reservation status of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which occupies 300 acres in Masachusetts. Consequently the Mashpee Wampanoag people will no longer have tribal authority over that land and may lose housing benefits, rights to natural resources, and cultural protections. The tribe has reportedly occupied the land for over 12,000 years. Critics have decried the decision as unnecessary and disastrous in the midst of a pandemic.