Kindred spirits: Irish-Native American solidarity

A fundraiser for two Native American tribes hard hit by the pandemic has received tens of thousands of dollars from donors in Ireland. Conor Donnan looks at the Irish diaspora in the United States and at the transatlantic solidarity between Ireland and Native nations.

Man shakes hands with member of Ojibwe tribe of Wisconsin, an another man in headdress looks on.
Eamon De Valera, the president of Ireland, shakes hands with members of Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin during a 1919 tour of the United States.


fundraiser for two Native American tribes hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic has received tens of thousands of dollars from donors in Ireland, which many say is payback for tribal support during the Great Famine.

Hundreds of comments on the GoFundMe page raising money to help the Navajo and Hopi nations cite a donation by the Choctaw tribe to Ireland in 1847 as the inspiration for their donation, which has collected over $4 million so far.

“The Choctaw Nation sent the Irish monetary aid during the Irish Potato Famine. During this dark period in Irish history over 1 million Irish died while they were abandoned by their British rulers. But the Irish never forget, and we are repaying the generosity of the Choctaw Nation now in 2020, not forgetting that they, too, were suffering greatly under British rule during this period also,” reads one comment from late May.

“Thank you for the help that Native American people showed to Irish people at our time of struggle. It is fitting that their descendants can return that wonderful act of good will and kindness,” reads another.

The Irish/Native American connection might seem like an unlikely alliance to the casual observer, but not to history doctoral candidate Conor Donnan. He has spent his academic career looking at the Irish diaspora in the United States ,and in the process uncovered stories highlighting the transatlantic solidarity between Ireland and Native nations dating back to the 1800s.

“The Choctaw donating to Irish was not just philanthropic, but it was also a critique of imperialism in the United States,” he says. “These were nations that were victims of the Anglo-Protestant imperial project.”

Man in blue shirt standing in front of brick buildings and green trees smiles at the camera
Conor Donnan, doctoral student in the History department, looks at the relationship between the Irish and Native Americans. (Image: Courtesy of Conor Donnan).

Donnan grew up in Belfast, the son of a single mom in a neighborhood where one in two people lives below the poverty line. 

“I was brought up in the end stages of The Troubles, which is a weird name for something that was essentially an all-out war,” he says. When the conflict ended, in addition to soaring poverty, Northern Ireland also had serious drug abuse issues and its suicide rate was the highest in the United Kingdom, Donnan says. These problems mirror those in Native American communities, he says.

“There is an emotional attachment for me to research the effect of colonization and war in my community, and in researching the Irish diaspora, the links to Native Americans were hard to miss,” he says.

Donnan’s current research at Penn focuses on labor and immigration in 19th and 20th-century America. His dissertation reconstructs the interactions of Irish Catholics and Native Americans against the backdrop of American imperial expansion, industrialization, and questions of citizenship in the trans-Mississippi West from 1841 to 1924. 

And he’s uncovered a number of surprises, both good and bad, during his research, he says.

For instance, the lore of the Choctaw donation is that the tribe donated $170 to Ireland not long after the Trail of Tears, when they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. But it turns out the Choctaw of Skullyville, Oklahoma, donated $170, while the Choctaw of Doaksville sent $150, and the Cherokee Nation raised $200 for the Irish.

“It wasn’t a one-time donation,” he says. “Here were multiple Indigenous communities imagining they’re in the same colonial sphere as the Irish, both oppressed by imperialism. It was super fascinating to find this out.”

A large stainless steel sculpture depicting bird feathers standing upright in a circle sits in a green grass field.
The "Kindred Spirits" sculpture was unveiled in County Cork, Ireland, in 2017 to honor the Choctaw donation to help Irish famine victims.

A stainless steel, outdoor sculpture was dedicated in County Cork in 2017 as a memorial to the Choctaw donation during the famine.

But the connection didn’t stop there. During Ireland’s War of Independence, the nation’s president Eamon de Valera traveled to the U.S. in 1919 to drum up support for the cause. He ended up going all the way to Wisconsin to meet with the Lac Court Oreille band of the Ojibwe.

“He was made an honorary chief in front of 3,000 members of the Ojibwe” Donnan says. 

Tribal Chief Joe Kingfisher told De Valera he wished could give him “‘the prettiest blossom of the fairest flower on earth, for you come to us as a representative of one oppressed nation to another,’” Donnan says.

During his speech, De Valera spoke in Gaelic and English to highlight both the cultural oppression of both groups, explaining how like the Ojibwe, the Irish have suffered under English oppression.

“They gave him a headdress, and he gave them bunch of .38 caliber guns, and the Ojibwe still has them today,” Donnan says.

The flip side of this are the tales of Irish exploiting Indigenous lands and people, Donnan says.

“It’s a part of Irish history we don’t talk about at all,” he says. 

“One of the first people to find oil in Los Angeles was Edward Doheny, who made his money as an ‘Indian killer,’” he says. “The movie ‘There Will be Blood’ is based on his life.”

When Donnan approached his advisor, Walter Licht, with the premise of his dissertation, he says Licht’s only concern was the potential lack of historical sources on the topic.

“A lot of it was being inventive, looking at sources academic historians don’t always consider historical,” Donnan says. That included examining objects like the Lakota Winter Counts pictographs—animal hides on which the tribe draws one key event of the year—and emailing current tribal leaders to ask about artifacts and historical documents.

 “In the end, I had 50 boxes of sources,” he says.

Donnan entered the doctoral program in history intent on studying U.S. labor history in general but with a focus on the Irish-immigrant experience and attention to issues of race, gender, and political ideology, Licht says.

“It was interesting to watch Conor switch the geographical point of view of his studies from the common scholarly look at Irish immigrants in urban industrial centers of the Northeast to the American frontier during the period of U.S. imperial expansion in the West,” Licht says. “The question of the Irish immigrant role in the process became central to him, especially with regard to Native Americans and their conquest. It has been fun to be part of his scholarly journey as his dissertation advisor and a pleasure to work with him.”

Part of Donnan's research was funded by a research grant from the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Immigration (CSERI). All full-time Penn undergraduate or graduate students enrolled in any school whose research focuses on social science approaches to race, ethnicity or immigration in the United States or in other countries are eligible to apply for CSERI's Turner-Shulman Fellowships.

Donnan is also a graduate fellow at Perry World House and the Collegium Institute in Philadelphia. He is an active public historian and a board member of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum

He also works at a nonprofit called Someone to Tell It To, which offers listening services to anyone who calls or texts and wants to talk about their problems, he says. It’s an extension of his commitment to community engagement that started for him after peace and reconciliation at home. 

As for the GoFundMe raising money for the Navajo and Hopi tribes, which have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection outside of New York and New Jersey, Donnan has spoken to people who have organized it and who have donated.

“There are so many cool things about it. There are over 73,000 donors and most of the donations are $10, $20, $30. It’s a grassroots movement,” he says. 

The people of Ireland became very aware of the Choctaw donation after the sculpture installation in 2017 and when the Prime Minister Leo Varadkar visited the nation in 2018. 

“It became a story of transatlantic solidarity that took the hearts of a lot of Irish people, and when they heard about the Navajo and Hopi plight, they thought, ‘This is our time to give back,’” he says.

He says he hopes something productive will come from the renewed attention. The Irish prime minister has said he wants the Choctaw to come to Ireland for university and will give free tuition. Donnan says maybe Irish politicians could create stronger transnational links with Native American businesses or work to help tribe members get room and board as well at Irish universities.