The Choctaws learned that Ireland was going through a Famine - ‘it spoke to them’

New to the Parish: Chayla Rowley arrived from the United States in 2019

Chayla Rowley from the US who is a Fulbright student at DCU. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Chayla Rowley from the US who is a Fulbright student at DCU. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Growing up, Chayla Rowley’s father often spoke to his daughter of the bond that existed between her family’s Native American tribe and the people of Ireland.

A citizen of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, Rowley was aware from an early age of how her ancestors raised money for victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. The donation was less than two decades after they were forced by the US government to leave their ancestral homes and march west into unknown territories.

“Somehow the Choctaws gained knowledge that Ireland was going through a Famine and it clearly really spoke to them. Having gone through starvation and having to migrate themselves, they had such empathy and compassion for the Irish.”

With Choctaw blood on her father’s side, and an awareness of how her grandmother was taught to “be white” and not to speak her native language, Rowley always felt a strong connection to her indigenous heritage. When the opportunity arose to further her studies in 2019, Rowley started investigating options to study in the country which held a deep “kinship” with the Choctaw nation.

'It was this nice convergence of my background and history'

“I had been looking at the UK and the Choctaw [connection] made me think of Ireland. I stumbled across DCU and found they had a one-year taught master’s in refugee integrations as well as a Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] centre. Then I looked for funding and found a few different scholarships, including Fulbright. It was this nice convergence of my background and history.”

Having spent the first half of her life moving around the world with her family, Rowley was undaunted at the prospect of relocating to Ireland for her studies. The daughter of Methodist missionaries, Rowley spent the first five years of her life in Mozambique. From there, the family moved to France, Senegal, the US, Mexico and finally back to Arizona.

The family’s first stint back in the United States, when Rowley was 10 years old, was a total culture shock for the young student. She was enrolled in a small school in Pennsylvania, a complete contrast to her previous life at an international school in Senegal.

“I went into this setting where not only did everyone know each other but it felt, for me, that they didn’t know anything about anywhere else. I didn’t know how to connect with people because they had no idea what I was talking about.”

On her first day in the school, Rowley was introduced as the new student from Africa. “The teacher asked the students did they have any questions and I remember someone raised their hand and asked ‘so why are you not black?’” Her new classmates also failed to understand why an American citizen would spend so much time living abroad.

“When I left Senegal my friends were so excited for me. They said living in the US was this amazing thing and told me that one day they hoped to get to go there too. But I remember going home in those first few days at school and saying to my parents we have to go back and tell them the US is not this magical, beautiful place. It’s not to say the US doesn’t have wonderful qualities but as a child it was hard to come to terms with the change.

This was supposed to be my homecoming and that was a clash for me

“Going back to Pennsylvania was hard because I was told this was where I was from. This was supposed to be my homecoming and that was a clash for me.”

When Rowley returned to the US aged 14, she found a group of girls at the local high school who she finally felt comfortable with. “One of my friends was half Polish and half Puerto Rican, one was half Lebanese and one was from El Salvador. Clearly I just naturally gravitated to them without even thinking.”

After school, Rowley moved to Boulder in Colorado, where she studied a bachelor of science and master’s in civil engineering. She went on to work as a civil engineer with the US department of agriculture specialising in the conservation of natural resources and working with local farmers.

While in Colorado she also become interested in Stem programmes due to the lack of American Indian representation in the area. Discovering the master’s in DCU, along with the connection with Stem research, felt like the perfect fit.

After more than five years in Colorado, and influenced by the many years she spent abroad as a child, Rowley felt a strong urge to move overseas again. “I was in and out of so many different places during those formative years and I’ve come to understand how the decisions I make in life have been very informed by the fact that I had so many different cultures around me."

This long lasting relationship between two very different groups of people should serve as an inspiration

Rowley was also keen to further explore the Choctaw side of her personality, which promotes a “healthy life balance” rather than a drive to constantly succeed in the workplace.

“If I look at the very western, more US side of myself, I feel I need to make decisions based on the idea of continually progressing in work and setting myself up for a lucrative future. Whereas if I look at the influences that come into play through my time growing up in Africa or my indigenous heritage, it makes me want to focus on how I can spend more time with people and not worry about rushing to the next thing. It’s focused more on connections rather than personal moving up.”

Rowley arrived in Dublin on September 11th, 2019 on a Fulbright scholarship and has spent the past two months focusing her studies on the integration of refugee children through Stem activities.

She recently rented a car with friends and drove to Middleton in Co Cork, where the Kindred Spirits sculpture was installed in 2017 to commemorate the donation made by the Choctaw people to Ireland during the Great Famine.

This long-lasting relationship between two very different groups of people should serve as an inspiration at a time when media and politics often fixate on difference and fear around outsiders, says Rowley.

“I strongly believe that the future progress of humanity lies within our ability to foster a celebration of diversity. How do we show children that diversity can be a wonderfully positive thing? I come from this more hopeful side and want to look at how we make that message known to younger generations.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com or tweet @newtotheparish