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A 200 Year Conversation

by | Essay

The headline and the opening sentences caught our eye: “The Irish are repaying a favor from 173 years ago in Native Americans’ fight against coronavirus”:

“More than 170 years ago, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma didn’t have much.

The tribe suffered devastation starting in 1831, when it became the first of many Native American tribes to be forcibly removed from its homeland in the Southeastern United States in the deadly Trail of Tears to areas known as ‘Indian Territory.’ Disease, starvation and severe winter weather took the lives of at least 4,000 Choctaws and thousands of other Native Americans in what some historians have called the ‘Indian Holocaust.’ Sixteen years after they arrived in what is now Oklahoma, the Choctaws tried to rebuild their lives. At a tribal meeting, they heard of families struggling to survive Ireland’s infamous Potato Famine. They took up a collection, pooled together $170 and sent it to a group collecting money in New York.”

“Fast-forward to the worst pandemic in modern times: The Irish are repaying the generosity they received two centuries earlier from Native Americans. About 24,000 donors from Ireland have given roughly $820,000 in an online fundraiser operated by Native American volunteers to buy food and supplies for families on the Hopi and Navajo reservations in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.”

It’s a fantastic story—the kind we all need to hear right now. It’s also a beautiful example of what it means to enter and to stay in a conversation, even in the midst of our own pain and discomfort. This particular conversation has now lasted for nearly two centuries.

When the Choctaw Nation chose to send donations for the Irish potato famine in 1847, that crisis certainly wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t affecting them personally. They also weren’t responding out of their own abundance or sense of privileged obligation. In fact, it was the opposite. They were suffering deeply themselves, but instead of trying to hold on to what they did have and ignoring this other crisis happening to strangers in a foreign country an ocean away, they saw their common humanity, acknowledged the shared experience of misery, and used that recognition to act. They made someone else’s suffering their responsibility.

Today, Irish citizens are doing the same, and their relief efforts are being shared with other Native American communities who have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the United States. This story has now been covered in news stories on both sides of the Atlantic, but for these communities, the connection isn’t news—it’s never been forgotten. Choctaw leaders have participated in famine remembrances in Ireland, and in 1992 a group from Ireland walked 500 miles of the Trail of Tears, raising money along the way for famine relief in Somalia. Three years later Mary Robinson, then President of Ireland, made an official visit to the Choctaw Nation to express thanks. In 2017, a Choctaw delegation attended the dedication of a monument representing the relationship in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland. The sculpture depicts nine large steel feathers shaped into an empty bowl; the artist, Alex Pentek, said, “I wanted to show the courage, fragility and humanity that they displayed in my work.”

That courage, fragility, and humanity is exactly what it takes to actively choose to enter someone else’s experience and to draw on our own vulnerability to respond to theirs.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.