In advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, Dr. Mark McGowan, Professor of History and Celtic Studies and the Interim Principal of the University of St. Michael’s College for the 2020-2022 academic years, celebrates the value of a gift made by the Haudenosaune peoples to Irish migrants who arrived in Canada, fleeing the famine.
The Irish Famine (1846-1852) was one of the most traumatic events in modern Irish history. With the repeated failure of the potato crop, upon which two-thirds of Ireland’s 8 million people depended, the social and economic fabric of Irish life was torn to pieces. By the early 1850s, one million people had perished from hunger and disease and another 1.5 million simply left Ireland. One of the unsung episodes of the Famine was the donation of $179 (the figure is disputed) or just over $6,300 USD in todays currency, from the Choctaw Nation in the USA to Irish relief. There is much irony in this act of generosity from the Choctaw. They themselves were destitute having been forced to relocate from their traditional lands in the southeastern United States, to the designated “Indian Territory” in present day Oklahoma. From 1831-1833, this “Trail of Tears” initiated by President Andrew Jackson, himself of Irish descent, caused the deaths of thousands of Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole First Nations. Yet only fifteen years later, the Choctaw, in their own poverty, recognized the plight of the Irish, identified with it, and scraped up what meagre resources they had, to share with their fellow human beings living an ocean away. According to Choctaw historian and writer LeAnne Howe: “buried deeply within the Choctaw body politic is a sense of giving shelter, food, and/or aid to our relatives, friends, and allies. Ima, giving, is a cultural lifeway.” The Irish in Ireland have not forgotten the gift and have erected a large monument, highlighted by a massive circle of eagle feathers, to the Choctaw gift, named Kindred Spirits, near Cork.
What has gone virtually unsung in Canadian history is a similar gift, made by the Haudenosaune peoples to Irish migrants who arrived in Canada, fleeing the famine. In 1847, the traditional Mohawk territory of Hochelaga, then Montreal, was the scene of tremendous suffering and death. Afflicted with typhus and other serious infections, thousands of Irish migrants were herded into hastily built sheds at Point St. Charles, just east of the downtown area. The Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake, south of the city on the St. Lawrence River, immediately responded to the Irish, bringing food from their lands to the sheds. In addition, despite living in poverty themselves, the Mohawks took up a collection for Irish relief in Montreal, raising about $150, or just shy of $5,000 in today’s dollars. This was an enormous sacrifice for a people that had been marginalized and made sedentary near the great Island that once housed their council fires. At the time, Governor General, Lord Elgin, wrote to the Colonial Office indicating that “several Indian tribes expressed a desire to share in relieving the wants of their suffering white brethren.” Little else was said and the great kindness of the Mohawks was virtually forgotten in Canada. In fact, Canada’s Irish soon became part of the vanguard of settler-Colonial “nation building.” In Ireland, however, both the Lord Mayors of Dublin and Belfast have come to Canada to formally thank the Mohawk people for their great generosity in Ireland’s time of need. For her part Mohawk chief Christine Zachary-Deom, remarked during a Famine commemoration in Montreal, that the Haudenosaune and the Irish shared many qualities—they are “resilient, determined, and tough people.”
It is time that we look less to the “nation building” motifs that have so typified the writing of our history, and look for moments where “Kindred Spirits” prevailed. This might be one other way of seeking truth and affecting reconciliation. Such spirit was evident in 2020, when the Irish national lacrosse team gave up their place at the coming World Games, so that the Iroquois Nationals could play in their place this coming year in Birmingham, Alabama. The Nationals had been denied a place because they, according to the World Games administrators, were not a sovereign nation.
The need for generosity of spirit is ongoing.
St. Michael’s Principal from 2002–2011, Dr. McGowan is an historian renowned for his work on the Catholic Church in Canada and the Great Irish Famine, as well as the lasting impact that the Famine’s mass migration had on Canada.