Great Famine: Donegal Choctaw keeps Ireland link alive
By Audrey WatsonBBC News NI
When Native American
Choctaw tribesman Waylon Gary White Deer came to Ireland for the first time, he
described it as being like "an arrow shot through time".
"There is a teaching among the Choctaw that says
feeding someone is the greatest thing you can do because you are extending human
life," said the author and artist, who now lives in Donegal.
"The first thing Choctaw people do when a visitor
comes to their home is offer them something to eat, or just fix them a plate."
In 1847, it was this generosity that prompted the
Choctaw to donate £111 ($170 dollars), which in today's money would be
£5,200 ($8,200 dollars), to help starving Irish
people during the Great Famine.
More than one million people died during the Great
Famine, a period of mass starvation, illness, and emigration after disease
blighted potato crops.
"I first became aware of the connection between the
Choctaw and Ireland through a book I read at school," Waylon said.
"A teacher thought I wasn't working hard enough and I
was sent to the library to write an essay.
"I opened a book and the first page I came to was
about the Irish-Choctaw link."
Waylon, who is in his mid-60s, first came to Ireland
in 1995 after living in Oklahoma all his life.
"A friend from Londonderry had introduced me to the
work of Dublin-based
Ireland (AFRI), a humanitarian and social justice organisation," he said.
"Shortly after I made contact with them, they asked
me to lead their annual famine walk in Mayo.
"That first visit in 1995 really brought home to me
the link between the Choctaw and the Irish."
The Choctaw and the people of Ireland were in a
similar situation at the time of the famine. The Choctaw lived in
south-eastern USA, but the American government forcibly removed them from their
land to south-eastern Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
"We were both driven out of our homes and were
victims of starvation and hunger-related diseases. And as dispossessed people we
were trying to gather ourselves up again," said Mr White Deer.
As well as working as an artist and author, Waylon is
now a co-ordinator of the AFRI/Choctaw Famine Landscape Project, and has made
Ireland his permanent home.
"It just kind of happened. I lived in Cork and then
Dublin and moved to Donegal 15 months ago. The two cultures have a lot of
"We have endured American colonisation, but we have
kept our language and our songs and culture intact because they are very
precious to us.
"I have found there to be a genuineness and a
goodness in all Irish people, which is similar to the Choctaw.
"Also, the landscape in Ireland has a wild desolate
beauty and desolate spirit which is very nourishing to me.
"I feel very at home."
Waylon's work with the Famine Landscape Project aims
to keep alive the Irish-Choctaw famine link as well as standing in solidarity
with those who still suffer from want of food and lack of social justice.
The project now includes AFRI's Famine Walks, which
have been taking place since 1988.
Walk leaders have included Christy Moore, Denis
Halliday, Damien Dempsey, Sharon Shannon and Andy Irvine.
"The walks have three purposes," Waylon said.
"Commemorating those who died and identifying famine
graveyards, so they are marked and treated with respect.
"To promote healing. Even though the famine happened
more than 150 years ago, there is still a lot of shame and silence.
"There is a phenomenon called inter-generational
trauma. If something doesn't get resolved in one generation, it is passed down
to the next.
"The third purpose is to stand in solidarity with
those who still suffer hunger and injustice in a world of plenty.
"If we can turn those tragedies round, that's the way
the circle can be completed, because that's the way it was started."
The next walk takes place on Sunday 30 August in
Ballyshannon at 14:15 local time, starting from the town's former workhouse.