Culture

When the Choctaws gave all they had to help the Irish during the Great Famine of 1847

Ireland is a destination highly appreciated by a certain sector of travelers who are looking for something different from the classic sun and beach tourism. Landscape, mythology, music and literature are its main attractions, so it will not be unusual for more than one reader to have visited Cork, one of its most popular cities in this regard. Well, about twenty kilometers away is Midleton, a small town where some bicentennial distilleries are located (today belonging to the French group Pinord Ricard) where the famous whiskeys are made Jameson Y Paddy. There are also a couple of outstanding monuments there. One, in memory of the sixteen activists who died in the first quarter of the 20th century fighting the British during the Irish War of Independence. The other is really curious because it is a kind of Amerindian feathered headdress; Choctaw, to be exact, which inevitably leads one to wonder why he’s there.

To do this, we must go back to 1831, the year in which that Choctaw nation experienced the most tragic moment in its history. We saw it in the article dedicated to trail of tears but let’s summarize it succinctly. The Choctaw were part of what the whites called the Five Civilized Tribes, a group that they integrated together with Seminoles, Cherokees, Creeks and Chikasaws, considering them more advanced and cultured than the others. But that was not an obstacle so that in 1830 the Indian Remove Act, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, would force them to leave their land and move to the newly created Indian Territory. That trip, made on foot and in harsh conditions, meant the death of thousands of natives. The first to go were the Cherokee; the next, in 1831, the Choctaw.

It didn’t matter that they weren’t particularly bellicose or that years ago they had helped Jackson in his war against the Creeks. They had to leave behind their home, in the current states of Mississippi and Louisiana, to settle in Oklahoma. The trip meant the death of two and a half thousand of the total of 14,000 Choctaws due to poor planning in the distribution of food by the authorities, which led to famine and a cholera epidemic. Of course, they never saw the compensation they had been promised.

Choctaw village in 1869, painting by François Bernard / public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons

The suffering experienced in that episode was engraved so deeply in the collective mentality of those natives that sixteen years later, when they learned that another people was also experiencing a similar hardship, they could not remain unmoved. Only this time they weren’t Indian brothers but whites, people who lived thousands of miles across the ocean, on a little island called Ireland. And still, they came to his aid.

As in the previous case, we also dedicate an article to the Irish famine, which again must be briefly summarized. The Great Famineas it was known, began in 1845 as a result of a serious plague of Phytophthora infestansa parasitic fungus that causes what in Spain is called mildew or late blight and there late blight either potato blight because it fundamentally affects the potato. And it turns out that in that first half of the 19th century, a third of the population of Ireland, mostly rural, fed almost exclusively on that tuber because they worked for large landowners on a sharecropping basis, without receiving a salary and with the assignment of a room on a farm. rustic for their exploitation in exchange for a part of the benefits, which forced them to deliver the cereal harvest to the owners (generally English) and leave the small family garden for self-consumption only to grow potatoes (because they are there all year round) .

When the potatoes were lost season after season because of the plague, three million farmers found themselves in a dramatic situation: they had to deliver the wheat but, not receiving money for it, they could not buy alternative foods. This gave rise to the paradox that the potato, imported from the New World in the 18th century as the ideal food for the poor, became the tool of their misfortune. Between the famine and the associated diseases, close to a million people died, while a similar number had to leave their homes and emigrate to America without His Graceful Majesty’s government knowing how to react (and when it did, it was counterproductive because it facilitated the eviction sharecroppers for non-payment).

Choctaws / public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons

The seriousness of the situation transcended the island borders and what the British did not do, the Ottomans did… and the Choctaws. These on a much more humble and modest scale, evidently, since they could not even come close to the 9,000 pounds in food that Sultan Abdulmayid I sent (despite the government of John Russell, who tried to prevent their arrival because Queen Victoria had only contributed 2,000). But even so, in 1847 they organized a collection and collected 170 dollars, a tiny amount but for them, poor to misery, it was enormous, almost everything they had. It would be equivalent to about 5,000 current dollars.

168 years later, in 2015, this emotional story reached the ears of the artist Alex Pentek, who is precisely Irish. Overwhelmed by the generous and selfless gesture of the Choctaws, he decided to honor them with a sculpture -his specialty- which he inaugurated in June 2017, in an official act that had considerable media coverage and was attended as guests by twenty members of the Choctaw Council with his boss Garry Barton at the helm. The work, which is titled Kindred Spirits (Kindred Spirits), consists of nine large-scale stainless steel eagle feathers (each measuring 6 meters in height), all different from each other and arranged in a circle so that they appear to be a metaphorical bowl of food.

To make the monument, which he did in his studio Sculpture Factory, Pentek enlisted the help of art students from the Crawford College of Art and Design. So if someone visits Cork, they can go to neighboring Midleton and in Ballick Park they will find this beautiful tribute to human solidarity.


Sources

The Indian Removal Act: Forced Relocation (MarkStewart)/ The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (Arthur H. De Rosier)/ history of ireland (John O’Beirne Ranelagh)/Brief History of Ireland (Bruce Gaston)//Choctaw Nation/Alex Pentek


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