WASHINGTON — Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul thanked the Irish people on Monday for repaying a 173-year-old favor that represented one of the earliest uses of an international organization to deliver humanitarian aid.
An online fundraiser for Navajo and Hopi families in the United States that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic is almost three-quarters towards its goal of raising US$5 million, helped by more than US$800,000 from Irish donors who recalled the generosity of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in 1847 during Ireland’s Potato Famine.
With 3,200 confirmed coronavirus cases and 102 deaths, the Navajo Nation has the highest per capita rate of infections in the United States after New York and New Jersey.
“I wanted to send a special message of gratitude to the people of Ireland and of Irish descent that have donated to the Navajo Nation in these trying times in the memory of the Choctaw aid to Ireland. I am especially proud of this response because of my own Irish heritage,” said McPaul, dressed in a shamrock green jacket and matching jade necklace. “There are many similarities between our cultures, including our love of the land, our language, our songs, our dance, our sports, our people and our history.”
“We also have a shared history of oppression, and during the Irish famine, when the Choctaw Nation sent money to the Irish despite their own struggle, that gesture has become a symbol of paying it forward. And the Irish are paying it forward to the Navajo Nation,” she added in a video message on YouTube. “My hope is that the Navajo Nation will be able to pay it forward in honor of Ireland someday.”
Sprawled over the Colorado plateau in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in North America by land area, which is greater than 10 other U.S. states. It is the second largest, behind the Cherokee Nation, by population.
There were 332,000 Navajo Nation tribal members and 767,000 Cherokee Nation tribal members among the 2.9 million American Indian and Alaska Native populations counted in 2010 by the U.S. Census Bureau. But most Native Americans live in U.S. cities and suburban areas, not on the reservations.
Ethel Branch, McPaul’s predecessor as the top legal officer for the Navajo Nation, said she founded the GoFundMe fundraiser ‘Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund,’ in mid-March after going out to stock up on supplies for her elderly mother and nieces who live on the Native American reservation.
“Which I needed for my Mom because she doesn’t have electricity or running water, and that’s the case, you know, for a third of the people on the Navajo Nation,” Branch, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, said in another video message on YouTube.
Branch spent a day trying to find basic items such as soap, toilet paper and canned soup in the stores, many of which had sold out or inflated their prices. So she called friends to solicit ideas about how they could raise money to help the most vulnerable families get what they need.
Their difficulties reflect a long history of oppression. Nearly two centuries ago, gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, prompting a federal land grab. Then-U.S. President Andrew Jackson signed into law the 1830 Indian Removal Act, authorizing the U.S. government to relocate Native Americans to federal territories west of the Mississippi River and clear the way for white settlements on their ancestral lands.
The law followed on the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France that made possible the United States’ ruthless expansion to its Western Territory. The brutal journeys or “death marches” that tens of thousands of people from Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes suffered in the 1830s, after being forcibly relocated from their lands in the southeastern United States, became known as the Trail of Tears.
They were detained in dozens of forts that were built on their lands to hold them, then forced to march westward to designated Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, according to the Trail of Tears Association. Along the way thousands died from disease, exhaustion, exposure and malnutrition.
Their suffering bred compassion for the Irish people, among more than 1 million starved to death while huge quantities of food were exported from their nation during the great Irish famine that began in 1845. As with the Native Americans, governmental callousness played a role; the famine resulted not just from crop failure but also from a policy of exporting crops that could have kept alive the British colony’s inhabitants.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged the government’s complicity at a 1997 ceremony in Cork, Ireland. “Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy,” he said. “We must not forget such a dreadful event.”
“We noticed that we were getting a lot of donations from Ireland so we were wondering why . . . sorry I get emotional talking about this part,” Ms Begay, Navajo, broke off. “And I learned about what the Choctaw did for the Irish people, and it was so beautiful.” #Ireland 💚 pic.twitter.com/RSXtLVh6rd
— Lakota Man (@LakotaMan1) May 7, 2020
From great suffering, empathy
In 1847, U.S. Army Captain William Armstrong, who had been appointed by Jackson to enforce the Native Americans’ removal from the southeastern United States, told a gathering of Choctaws about the Irish famine. Armstrong, who was the superintendent of Indian affairs in the Western Territory, collected US$170 from the Choctaws to send to Irish families suffering from famine. That is equivalent to US$5,315 today.
The money was sent to Ireland through the General Irish Relief Committee of the City of New York. In May of that year, its chairman, Myndert Van Schaick, wrote to Ireland’s Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends that US$145,000 had been raised for the Irish people. He singled out Choctaws for their “cheerful aid in this good cause, though they are separated from you by many miles of land and an ocean’s breadth.”
Historians say the Choctaws’ generosity reflected a tendency among those who have the least to give. Often they are the ones that give the most, because of an empathy for others born of personal suffering. Ireland’s Society of Friends, which functioned as an early international humanitarian aid organization, described the donation as “the voice of benevolence from the Western wilderness of the Western Hemisphere.”
Flash forward to 2020, and Irish families are repaying that generosity in kind by aiding Native Americans. Many of the donors — more than a few gave exactly US$170 — cited a desire to honor the 1847 donation. Ireland, too, has been suffering in the pandemic, with more than 23,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,467 deaths.
“Paying forward a favor from the Choctaw. Here’s hoping the Navajo and Hopi will be prosperous enough in the future to pay it forward to someone else in need,” one donor, Paul Colclough, wrote in explaining the US$100 he gave for the GoFundMe coronavirus fundraiser for Navajo and Hopi families.
“In our hour of need, during the Irish Famine of the 1840s, the Choctaw people helped keep some of my ancestors alive,” another donor, Pat O’Brien, wrote about his US$50 contribution. “I am grateful. Thank you.”
The aid for the Irish famine is an early example of the uses of international organizations, which date to a European treaty more than two centuries ago to oversee ship tolls, towpaths and trade disputes on the Rhine River. The fledging river administration created by the Treaty of 15 October 1804 between the French Empire and Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation evolved into the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine.
International humanitarian aid organizations generally trace their history to the second half of the 19th century, starting with British social reformer Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses in the Crimean War that ended in 1856. Swiss philanthropist Henry Dunant built on those efforts by gathering allies at Geneva in 1863 to galvanize help for those wounded on battlefields and to organize care for their recovery.
Those efforts launched the International Committee of the Red Cross. With the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols, the Red Cross has taken on a mandate that is at the core of international humanitarian law and that underpins the most important rules for limiting the global barbarity of war.