Generosity in Times of Distress: A History Lesson

Find out how the Irish returned a favor to the Choctaw people 170 years later.

We were touched by a story in The New York Times this week that described a uniquely generous act from 170 years ago that is being repaid in this COVID-19 crisis. 

The Choctaws are a Native American people originally from the southeastern part of the U.S., but they were forcibly moved to Oklahoma starting in 1831 as one of the first tribes on the Trail of Tears. Thousands died along the way. 

Even in their distress, however, the Choctaws heard about the potato famine in Ireland that took the lives of a million people and were moved to respond. In 1847, they sent $170 to starving Irish families (the equivalent of $5,000 today). That act was never forgotten by the Irish — there is even a sculpture commemorating their gift in County Cork today.

As COVID-19 ravages the U.S. today, reports of the outbreak in the Navajo Nation are particularly troubling. The poverty experienced by many there has allowed the disease to spread quickly — close to 100 have died already. 

Remembering the Choctaw’s generous act inspired people in Ireland to respond. Hundreds have contributed to a relief fund for the Navajo and Hopi tribes that has raised nearly $2 million to offer supplies to families in distress. The Times interviewed professor Diarmaid Ferriter, an historian at University College Dublin, about the movement to support the Navajo:

“It showed how far the famine resonated that it reached people 4,000 miles away who had themselves recently suffered terrible deprivation and clearance from their land,” said Prof. Ferriter. “There is a belief that the famine has never been forgotten here, and it has made Irish people more likely to make common cause with other marginalized people.”

It says a lot about the Choctaws that they found a way to remain generous and other-oriented at a moment when they, themselves, were suffering from terrible oppression. They had lost their own land and health and culture, but retained and exercised an important part of their humanity. It could be that caring for others in that moment was a key to their resilience. 

Perhaps this is a lesson we’ll learn from this pandemic as well — that even if we’re facing uncertainty and distress, we can still do something to care for others. And that sort of generosity might be just the kind of defining act that keeps a fundamental part of our identity alive. 

It seems as though the Irish think so. 

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