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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

More than 170 years ago, a U.S. tribe did Ireland a solid.

The European country has not forgotten it.

This week, the Ireland Lacrosse team bowed out of an international tournament to open up a spot for the Iroquois Nationals.

It’s the latest in a series of gestures between the island nation and Native American tribes that date back to 1847, when Choctaw leaders gave $170 to the Irish as their country battled a potato famine that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Historians estimate today’s value of the amount at roughly $5,000.

The donation came only years after the Choctaw were reestablishing themselves in what is now known as Oklahoma. The Choctaw people and other southeastern tribal nations were ousted from traditional homelands by the U.S. government and forced to walk west in the removal known as the Trail of Tears.

The gift has inspired at least three visits between leaders of Choctaw and Ireland. A feather-like sculpture called “Kindred Spirits” built in County Cork, Ireland, and dedicated in 2017 pays homage to the Choctaw.

"Kindred Spirits" sculpture in Midleton, Ireland. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Militante)

In May, hundreds of Irish donated to a fundraising campaign to help Navajo and Hopi families with supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The GoFundMe campaign has grown to nearly $5.9 million since March 15.

In a statement published by the New York Times in May, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton said his nation was “gratified” to learn of the gesture to the Navajo and Hopi people.

(Related article: Act of kindness kindles Choctaw-Ireland bond)

“We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish potato famine,” he said. “We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have.”

The Choctaw and Irish relationship also sparked a poetry collaboration between author LeAnne Howe, Choctaw, and Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, along with the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship Programme, a scholarship for Choctaw students to attend the University of College Cork in Ireland.

Ireland’s most recent gesture to benefit the Iroquois Nationals, or Haudenosaunee Nation — a confederacy of six First Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora Nations — opens up a window for the Nationals to compete at the highest international level, the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.

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The Iroquois team has yet to receive a formal invitation from the International World Games Association, but many expect that to happen.

Ireland was one of eight teams invited to compete. The Nationals were left out because organizers didn’t recognize them as a sovereign nation. But outside pressure from lacrosse programs and organizations, along with heat on social media, led them to change the requirements.

Ireland Lacrosse CEO Michael Kennedy told Lax Sports Network that since his team was the last to qualify based on 2019 rankings, he knew World Lacrosse would reach out.

“I said, ‘Look guys, I’m going to make this very easy. We want the Iroquois to take up the position which is rightfully theirs,'" Kennedy said.

Iroquois Lacrosse, in a statement, said Ireland Lacrosse went “above and beyond.”

Shattler of the Iroquois Nationals during the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

“We are storytellers, but today we are without words as we contemplate the generosity of spirit shown by Ireland lacrosse,” the statement said. “All we can say is: You are in our hearts. You are part of the spirit of lacrosse. We will never forget that. Nyawenha, Go raibh maith agat. Thank you.”

The Embassy of Ireland, USA, quoted International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin in a social media post on Friday that also acknowledged Ireland’s decision to withdraw.

“By not taking part, Ireland Lacrosse have won something worth more than any medal — the friendship and respect of their Iroquois peers.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of LeAnne Howe's last name.