Reservation News

Irish honor Choctaw Nation with 'Kindred Spirits' sculpture

Written by KAELYNN KNOERNSCHILD, The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In a small Irish town sits a stainless steel reminder of that country's historic link to Oklahoma and the Choctaw Nation.

Nine handmade feathers curve up from a concrete foundation, symbolizing the shape of an empty bowl, The Oklahoman reported.

The feathers, meant to represent the Choctaw Nation's strength, kindness and humanity, are delicate and give off a metallic luster when illuminated by the sun.

The sculpture stands 20 feet tall near a popular walking path in Bailic Park in Midleton, a town of about 12,000 on Ireland's southern coast.

The work, named "Kindred Spirits," is meant to symbolize the shared history between the Choctaw Nation and the Irish, which began with a $170 donation.

On Sunday, Choctaw Nation leaders, including Chief Garry Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin, Jr., will join an Irish delegation to dedicate the sculpture and commemorate the generous gesture from 1847.

"It's very humbling that a nation of people were so moved by the donation that they erected a monument honoring it almost 170 years later," Batton said in an email.

The empty-bowl design is meant to symbolize a historic famine the Irish experienced, sculptor Alex Pentek said.

"It's a history I don't think is remembered much, sculpturally, anywhere in the world," Pentek said.

During the late 1840s, a bout of blight, a disease that destroys potato plants, ruined crops across Europe, having an exceptionally devastating effect on Ireland's rural poor. Impoverished peasants, who lacked money for food, worked to export grain and other crops to Britain while starving. The British government's relief efforts, such as loans and soup kitchen funding, were insufficient. About a million people died during what became known as the Great Starvation.

"It was difficult to imagine the level of suffering people went through," Pentek said. "It was very much a poor person's famine."

At the same time, the Choctaws were rebuilding their lives in Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma, after being forced to journey hundreds of miles from their homeland in Mississippi.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act, ordering thousands of Native Americans, including Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Creek Nations, to move to Indian Territory. Many became sick or died during the march, known as the Trail of Tears.

Though an ocean away, a mutual feeling of oppression united the tribe with the Irish.

In 1847, the Choctaw Nation scraped together $170, about $5,000 today, to send to the starving poor in Ireland.

"They felt a kinship with the Irish who were starving," Batton said. "They gathered what they could to help relieve the suffering, a condition that was probably still fresh on their minds."

Told through generations, the story of generosity resulted in trips by both nations. In 1990, Choctaw Nation leaders traveled to Ireland, and in 1995 Irish President Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw.

Joe McCarthy, East Cork municipal district officer, said it is a "great pleasure" to honor the Choctaw and to have the opportunity to say thank you in person.

"The Choctaw Gift was an amazing and inspiring act of kindness and generosity and deserves to be commemorated and acknowledged," McCarthy said in an email.

In 2013, the Midleton Town Council provided funding for a series of public art projects, McCarthy said, and set aside more than $100,000 for the sculpture acknowledging the Choctaw gift.

The sculpture, which was installed in the park in spring 2015, will be dedicated at 2 p.m., Sunday. The ceremony will feature traditional Choctaw and Irish music to celebrate the merging of two cultures.

Allowing time between the sculpture installation and public dedication has allowed more people to become aware of the work and the story behind it, McCarthy said. The sculpture seems to have been adopted locally as well as internationally, with thousands viewing photos that tourists and others have shared on social media.

Pentek said he hopes the art will emphasize a message of kindness, urging people to reach across perceived boundaries and divides to help one another.

"The monument is testament to the bond that was forged between our nations and it stands as a symbol of the generosity of both the Choctaw and Irish people," Batton said.

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