Irish Repay Choctaw Famine Gift: March Traces Trail of Tears in Trek for Somalian Relief

By Mike Ward
American-Stateman Capitol Staff, 1992

Nearly 150 years after the Great Potato Famine, a group of Irish people is retracing the “Trail of Tears” from Oklahoma to Mississippi to repay a longstanding debt to the Choctaw Indian tribe.

Eight people from Ireland began the 500-mile trek from Broken Bow, Okla., to Nanih Waiya, Miss. — roughly retracing, in reverse, the government-forced relocation of the tribe in 1831 from its homeland to what was then Indian Territory wilderness. Tens of thousands were moved. Nearly half died.

The Irish connection: In 1847, midway through the Irish famine, a group of Choctaws collected $710 and sent it to help starving Irish men, women and children.

The donation established a closeness between the Choctaws and the Irish. It is more than a historical footnote for many Choctaws in Texas.

“Even though we’re not directly involved, we’re very close to it,” said Boyd Tingle of Wimberley, whose ancestors were Choctaw and Irish. His wife, Patricia, is of Irish descent.

“It was like a love collection at church,” said Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation’s newspaper, Bishinik, based at the tribal headquarters in Durant, Okla.

“It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation . . . . It was an amazing gesture. By today’s standards, it might be a million dollars.”

According to a written account at the time, “Traders, missionaries, and (Indian) agency officials contributed, but the greater part of the money was supplied by the Indians themselves.”

Now, the Irish are returning the favor, by publicizing the generosity of the Choctaw and by raising money for yet another famine relief effort — this one in Somalia, an East African nation racked with anarchy and starvation.

So far, Allen said Monday, the group has raised about $18,000 of its $71,000 goal. Much of that has come from residents of Ireland who sponsored the walkers and from donations given the group along the way.

In a prelude to the hike by the Irish visitors, Choctaw Chief Hollis Roberts recently visited Ireland.

On Monday, the walkers were in Arkansas, where they were joined by 17 additional walkers. Today, the group is scheduled to cross the Mississippi River into Greenville, Miss.

Two Brazilian Indians will join the final stages of the trek Sept. 27 in Mississippi. Before the walk is finished Oct. 3, participants will have stopped in 30 cities in three states.

The charity walk is being staged by Action From Ireland, a Dublin-based human rights group that lists among its patrons Archbishop Tutu of South Africa.

“(It’s) a unique and historic event … which links the Choctaw Indians and the Irish people in an extraordinary bond of friendship,” said Don Mullan, the group’s director. “What makes the Choctaw story of such compelling interest to the Irish is the discovering of their generosity to our people.”

While no Texans are involved in the fund-raising effort, thousands of Choctaws and their desendants live in Texas, walk organizers said.

For the Tingles, the trek by the Irish has personal meaning.

Boyd Tingle’s ancestors were Choctaws in Oklahoma and Irish-born farmers who settled in Georgia before the famine. Patricia Tingle’s Irish ancestors came to the United States about the time the potato famine began, settling near Refugio in South Texas.

“I think (the walk) is fantastic,” Boyd Tingle said.

“Hunger is the same, no matter where the people are.”