‘In each other’s shadows’: Behind Irish outpouring of relief for Navajo

Why We Wrote This

“Why is a whole country all of the sudden donating to us?” the Navajo communications team leader wondered, as donations poured in from Ireland to the hard-hit tribe. The answer has its roots in a long-ago deed of kindness.

Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News/AP
Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on April 17, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita coronavirus infection rates in the United States.

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From the start, the leadership team of Navajo and Hopi women were particularly worried about their elders. The Navajo now have more diagnosed cases per capita than any other state – and the health care situation is so dire that Doctors Without Borders has sent a team to the United States for the first time in history.

Then donations came pouring in, often accompanied by a Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine, which means, “In each other’s shadows the people live.”

The answer harks back to another tribe’s generosity in 1847. The Choctaw, still reeling from the Trail of Tears, sent money to Irish families starving during the Potato Famine.

“It’s one of those stories that we have about a people who were there for us when we were weak and powerless and alone,” says Maria Farrell, an Irish writer.

Cassandra Begay’s grandmother is among those living without running water and electricity. Her best friend contracted the virus. Unable to see him face to face, she’s been leaving meals and flowers near his front door. 

“It’s been heartbreaking, but it’s also been – it feels good to come from a place of strength and compassion and grace for our people,” Ms. Begay, communications director for the relief team, says through tears.

Cassandra Begay felt a quiet sense of awe earlier this month when she and other Navajo and Hopi women watched their COVID-19 fundraiser begin to double, inexplicably, in less than a week.

The women’s relief effort, launched in mid-March, had already been quite successful, she says, raising about $1.3 million to provide food and water for the most vulnerable living in their nations’ remote communities – who have been among those most afflicted by the coronavirus pandemic across the United States.

“Then one of my teammates, she’s like, ‘Hey, guys, we’re all of the sudden receiving a flood of donations from Ireland!’” says Ms. Begay, a Navajo activist who’s been handling the team’s communications. “And so we’re, like, ‘What’s going on? Why us? Why is a whole country all of the sudden donating to us?’”

There were thousands of unfamiliar names appearing on the team’s GoFundMe page – the first names Siobhán, Padraig, and Aoife, or surnames O’Leary, McMullen, and Gallagher – each donating small amounts from across the Atlantic. Many posted a common Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine, which means, “In each other’s shadows the people live.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The women soon learned why the donations, now at more than $3.6 million, were pouring in: After hearing about their fundraiser, many people in Ireland recalled a moment from their own history more than 170 years ago. Another tribe of America’s first peoples, the Choctaw, raised $170 (about $5,000 in today’s dollars) and sent it to starving Irish families during the Potato Famine in 1847.

“I’m sure Ireland received all sorts of donations from around the world back then, but that’s the one that has stuck with us,” says Maria Farrell, an Irish writer living in London. “It’s one of those stories that we have about a people who were there for us when we were weak and powerless and alone. They helped us, and now we’re friends forever.”

A different people whose ancestral lands were over 1,200 miles from the Hopi’s and Navajo’s, the Choctaw collected their modest donation just a few years after the infamous Trail of Tears, when the U.S. government forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands across the South, killing thousands.  

“I think the gift touched and stayed with Irish people so much, basically because it wasn’t charity. It was an act of solidarity,” Ms. Farrell says. “The Choctaw people, they were giving it to us because they saw us, they recognized us and our plight as being similar to theirs.”

As the Monitor has reported, the COVID-19 crisis has affected Native peoples across the U.S. in disproportionate numbers. The Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico, with a population of about 330,000, now has more coronavirus cases per capita than any state, according to the Navajo health agency

Given how infectious diseases brought over from Europe, such as the measles and smallpox, wiped out large swaths of native populations, many observers say the outsize effects of COVID-19 today on Native peoples are particularly poignant. 

From the start, the leadership team of Navajo and Hopi women were particularly worried about their elders. The relief effort began informally by the former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, who knew her people were particularly at risk.

More than a third of their nation’s members have no running water or electricity, and many rely on unregulated wells and springs, which are often contaminated by more than 500 abandoned uranium mines. The area is also considered a food desert, with only 13 grocery stores serving more than 180,000 people. Even before the lockdown, unemployment hovered around 50%.

But one of the most critical problems on Navajo lands has been the lack of health care infrastructure. The situation has become so dire that the international relief agency Doctors Without Borders, which serves poverty stricken and war-torn areas throughout the world, sent a delegation of health care workers to the United States for the first time. 

“There are many situations in which we do not intervene in the United States, but this has a particular risk profile,” Jean Stowell, head of the organization’s U.S. COVID-19 Response Team, told CBS News. ”You can’t expect people to isolate if they have to drive 100 miles to get food and water.”

Ms. Begay’s grandmother is among those living without running water and electricity. Her best friend contracted the virus, too, she says. Unable to see him face to face, she’s been leaving meals and bouquets of flowers near his front door. 

“It’s been heartbreaking, but it’s also been – it feels good to come from a place of strength and compassion and grace for our people,” Ms. Begay says through tears. “And for me personally – I get emotional about this, because I know this is a dark time for us – but, you know, with the outpouring of support from the Irish people because of what the Choctaw ancestors did 173 years ago – it’s so good to be a part of that history, a positive part of that history.”

Her people have a concept similar to that in the Irish proverb appearing on their fundraising site, she says, a spiritual idea called K’é

“It’s about the importance of honoring the sacredness of our relations to each other,” she says. “It’s the principal belief that where we come from – our family, our community, our nation, as well as our relations with other people, and not only just humans, but of all things – it’s a sacred relationship.” 

The relationship between the Choctaw and the Irish was memorialized in 2015 when a large stainless steel sculpture of eagle feathers was dedicated in the town of Midleton in Ireland, one reason the memory of the 1847 donation was fresh in the memories of many Irish donors. 

“We are gratified, and perhaps not at all surprised, to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi nations,” said Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma in a statement last week

“Our word for their selfless act is iyyikowa – it means serving those in need,” said Chief Batton, who traveled with a delegation to Midleton when the sculpture was dedicated. “We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish Potato Famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have. Sharing our cultures makes the world grow smaller.”

The former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and current Prime Minister Leo Varadkar each traveled to Oklahoma to pay a visit to the Choctaws.

The potato famine claimed more than 1 million lives from 1845 to 1852, but 1847 was the most deadly, scholars say, and it is still known as Black ’47. 

“And when you look at it, you know, you can see the suffering of both sets of peoples was a political choice – the Trail of Tears and Black ’47,” says Ms. Farrell in London. “They weren’t accidents – they were a tyrannical acts of colonialism,” noting the British government offered scant aid to the Irish people during the famine. “Their governments caused just unthinkable hardship to both peoples.”

Just reading the comments from donors has filled members of the leadership with a newfound strength. “When it started, we couldn’t believe it. We were just – our hearts were so full,” Ms. Begay says. “And, you know, we were struggling because it’s hard doing this work.”

“But I know that I won’t have any regrets from this part of my life and in this time of history,” she continues. “With the outpouring of support from our Irish friends because of what the Choctaw ancestors did 173 years ago ... it’s something we’ll always remember, and our children will remember, and there will come a day when we will pay it forward, too.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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