Indian file – An Irishman’s Diary about the Taoiseach, the Choctaws, and my lunch with a Wonderbra model

Brenda Schad: Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry. Photograph: tribeoftwo.com Brenda Schad: Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry. Photograph: tribeoftwo.com

Brenda Schad: Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry. Photograph: tribeoftwo.com Brenda Schad: Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry. Photograph: tribeoftwo.com

 

All that stuff about Leo Varadkar and the Choctaws on Monday reminded me of one of the highlights of my journalistic career: the day I had lunch with a Wonderbra model. It was 20 years ago this week, by coincidence. And I don’t suppose the (now former) Wonderbra model still remembers it. But it was a social triumph for me, even apart from the obvious reasons.

On top of those, there was also the fact that, during the course of our conversation, in a gratifyingly crowded Temple Bar restaurant, I said two things that made an obvious impression on my glamorous interviewee. One left her moved – almost visibly. The other made her laugh out loud. That’s well above my usual strike rate.

Her name was Brenda Schad, an Anglo-Saxon inheritance from childhood adoption in Texas. But her face looked Native American. And sure enough, after ordering a very model-unfriendly hamburger, chips, and non-diet Coke, she told me she was a mixture of Choctaw and Cherokee parents.  

This was my cue to mention that the Choctaws were famous in Ireland because of something they did during the Famine. She hadn’t heard the story before. So I recalled what I could of it: that it was only a few years after their forced exile to Oklahoma in the “Trail of Tears”; that they somehow raised $170; that this was all the more generous because it was was gift from a people who had nothing, etc. And hearing all this, it’s no exaggeration to say, my guest was rapt.  

As for the bit where I made her laugh, it would be nice to claim that was in response to an intended witticism. Alas, it was not. What happened was that two of my colleagues, Seamus Martin and Conor Pope, were having lunch nearby.

They were working jointly then on a new-fangled thing called The Irish Times Online, which we all knew wouldn’t last, although in public we wished them well.  

And as they got up to leave that day, they walked past our table. So I said: “Hi Conor. Hi Seamus.” Whereupon Brenda slightly choked on her hamburger. “What’s so funny?” I asked her. “Sorry,” she said, “Conor and Seamus – that’s just so Irish!”  

It was now my turn to marvel at the heritage bequeathed us by our ancestors, and to reflect on how exotic we must seem to the outside world.

***

That lunch happened soon after Walt Disney’s animated version of Pocohantas, and there was a rumour circulating that Schad’s face had inspired the one in the film.

Helpful as such a rumour might be to a modelling career, she denied any part in starting it.

The most she would claim is that hers had been one of several photographs studied by Disney, and that the end result was a composite.

The story of Pocahantas dates from the early years of European settlement in America, when a real-life “Indian princess” married one of the settlers, became a Christian, and moved to England. Subsequent traffic would be mostly the other way, to the point where two centuries later, the indigenous tribes were being crowded out of their homelands east of the Mississippi.  

Hence the “Trail of Tears”, a term that was not confined to the Choctaws.  

On the contrary, the phrase may have been first used to describe the suffering of the other half of Brenda Schad’s ancestry, the Cherokees, during an epic winter march to the new “Indian Territory” in 1835. In time, it also came to be used for the Choctaws’ trek, a few years earlier in 1831, and several other such ordeals.

The cause of all of these was a son of Ulster, one generation removed. In fact, Andrew Jackson was born 251 years ago tomorrow, only a year or two after his parents left Carrickfergus. He made his military reputation during the Indian Wars, where he also earned the name the tribes gave him, “Sharp Knife”. But by 1829, he was US president and one of his first initiatives was the Indian Resettlement Act.

Anyway, I was glad to see the Taoiseach acknowledging the Choctaws’ famous donation again. It was all the more apt, in a way, in light of a minor controversy on social media last year. The row involved two things that, when I was having lunch with the Wonderbra model 20 years ago, would have been about equally unimaginable.

One was Twitter, the platform used by a latter-day Ulster man, Lord Kilclooney, for what was perceived as an insult against the Taoiseach.  

The other was the insult itself: which involved Kilclooney calling the head of an Irish Government “the Indian”.

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