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How a friendship between the Choctaw tribe and Ireland started centuries ago

Nearly 200 years later, the unique bond between the Choctaw Nation and Ireland continues to thrive.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — In 1847, Ireland was in the middle of the Great Potato Famine. Irish men, women and children, found themselves facing starvation, homelessness and possibly death, which ultimately was the fate of over one million people.

In the United States, a man named Myndert Van Schaick was traveling and informing citizens of the famine as the leading member of the General Irish Relief Committee.

Eventually, Van Schaick reached the Choctaw Nation in what is now Oklahoma.

16 years prior, the Choctaw people found themselves in a similar situation during their displacement from Mississippi to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

After hearing Van Schaick’s account of the struggles facing the Irish people and reflecting on their own history, the Choctaw Nation came together and offered a donation of $170 to help feed and supply Ireland.

“This really resonated with the Choctaw people and it was a familiar heartache, so our hearts went out to them,” said Deanna Byrd, NAGPRA Liaison and member of the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department.

Today, the Choctaw Nation’s act of kindness equates to nearly $5,000.

“Choctaw people have a special connection with the Irish people because of the small gift that we gave them during the Great Famine,” Byrd said.

The generous gift has not gone unnoticed.

Despite being separated by more than 4,000 miles, Ireland and the Choctaw Nation have a special bond and friendship that continues to thrive, 175 years later.

In fact, in 2017, artist Alex Pentek commissioned a sculpture titled, “Kindred Spirits,” which sits in County Cork, Ireland and pays tribute to the unprecedented kindness given so long ago. The sculpture features feathers in the shape of an empty bowl, but through the small gift, many Irish lives were saved as they received food, blankets, clothes and other essential items.

“Here in our community, one of the things is wanting to share,” Byrd said. “If you have it, to give it, and that’s something that unites us and I think that’s why it resonates with people all over the world, it’s that compassionate spirit of wanting to give if you have it."

In 2018, former Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, made a visit to the Choctaw Nation, meeting with Chief Gary Batton and other members of the Nation.

Today, the friendship has continued to grow. The two nations have formed a scholarship for Choctaw students to attend the University College Cork in Ireland to continue their studies, and the two have a great working relationship sharing history and culture.

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