Choctaw Nation chief sees kindred spirit in Irish

Head of US tribe meets President Higgins 170 years after donation to Irish famine victims

President Michael D. Higgins receives a flute from Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, at  Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Maxwells

President Michael D. Higgins receives a flute from Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, at Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Maxwells

 

For the Chief of the Choctaw Nation, the Native American tribe, their donation of $170 to send food relief to the starving in Ireland during the Famine in 1847 captures his people’s humanitarian spirit.

Speaking before meeting Ireland’s own chief, President Michael D Higgins, at Áras an Uachtaráin, Gary Batton said that his Oklahoma tribe has a tradition of giving “without seeking things in return”.

He wants to continue living out those values and that legacy that his people started 170 years ago when his people gathered what money they could to send across the Atlantic to help the hungry in Ireland.

The donation amounted to the equivalent of about €4,000 in today’s money.

“It is one of the stories that is always told about living out our values as Choctaw and remembering who we are,” said the 47th chief of the Choctaw Nation, the third largest Native American tribe.

“It is part of our history. It is part of our culture now. That story is never forgotten because that is the example that was set for us that we want to live by.”

Chief Batton said he regularly receives letters from Irish schoolchildren thanking his people for their generosity 170 years ago.

He and a delegation of more than 15 representatives from the Choctaw Nation travelled to Dublin from Midleton in Cork where they attended a public ceremony on Sunday to dedicate a sculpture.

The feature sculpture, entitled “Kindred Spirits,” by Cork-based sculptor Alex Pentek is designed in the shape of a food bowl and commemorates the donation.

The Choctaw people were living through their own poverty at the time they collected what they could for the destitute Irish, coming less than two decades after they were forced from their native lands in what is now the state of Mississippi to lands west of the Mississippi River.

Migration

Their forced removal, in three waves of migration, became known as the Choctaw Trail of Tears and was the result of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek under US president Andrew Jackson.

“When we heard the story of the Great Famine here in Ireland, we basically felt that kindred spirit and knew we wanted to give,” said Chief Batton.

The tribe learned of the suffering of the Irish people in the famine from one of the soldiers who helped remove the people to their current home in modern-day Oklahoma.

“This was money that was pulled out of people’s pockets. I know $170 is not a lot of money. It is around $5,000 but still it was that spirit that wanted to give and to help those that were in need,” he said.

“That’s what the Choctaw People are about. That is what we have always been about.”

Chief Batton said the struggles of the Choctaw and Irish people are connected by a “spirit of hope, a spirit of perseverance” but that both peoples had overcome adversity and prospered.

The Choctaw people have assets of $3.2 billion that includes a chain of convenience stores and casinos, and employs 9,000 people. There are about 200,000 tribal members in the Choctaw Nation.

“Both of us have had our trials and tribulations and to be where we are today, as successful as the Choctaw Nation has been, as successful as Ireland has been, it is just a great story - the spirit of hope and prosperity,” he said.