By a happy coincidence, the scholarly community has just provided a thoughtful, well-researched explanation of a historical anomaly reported in last year's press. In the spring of 2015 the Irish Examiner announced that Alex Pentek was working on a monument to those Cherokees and Choctaws who, in 1847, sent $800 in famine relief to the beleaguered Irish. The monument, a stainless-steel sculpture of nine massive feathers fashioned into a crown, is entitled “Kindred Spirits,” and will adorn Bailic Park in Midleton, Ireland. The Examiner, and other journalists, commented on the exceptional generosity displayed by impoverished, displaced Native Americans who nonetheless gave their mite to help strangers 5,000 miles away. Now, in the latest (Winter 2015) issue of the Journal of the Early Republic,* historian Analise Shrout offers a detailed explanation of these Indian philanthropists' motives.
Drawing on nineteenth-century newspapers, southeastern Indians' correspondence, and theoretical literature, Shrout argues that the 1847 donations reflected the Choctaws' and Cherokees' traditions of generosity. Giving gifts allowed the donors to say, with their money if not their words, “We hold to our traditions; we are still Indian.” Charity also let the world know that the southeastern Indians had recovered their economic self-sufficiency and their ability to act independently of the United States government, whose Indian policy typecast Native peoples as recipients rather than donors of aid. Finally, as Pentek indicates in the title of his sculpture, gift-giving established a bond between distant peoples and identitied them as part of a Trans-Atlantic community of suffering. The Cherokees and Choctaws wanted to remind Euro-Americans that they, like the Irish, were no strangers to hunger and dispossession. In claiming this shared experience, Indians implicitly compared Britain's policy toward the Irish with the United States' policy toward Indians. Suffering always has a cause, and when that cause is human, acknowledging and alleviating that hardship becomes a political act.
Not surprisingly, white journalists who reported on the Choctaws' and Cherokees' generosity missed their implied critique of American imperialism. Indeed, at least one American newspaper, the American Flag, castigated Britain for its anti-Irish imperialism without acknowledging the huge imperial land grab, namely the Mexican War, that Americans were concurrently undertaking. Ironically, the American Flag operated out of the U.S.-occupied city of Matamoros, Mexico, within the new American zone of conquest.
White Americans preferred to focus their attention on the crimes of another empire, and it remained for political outsiders, like the southeastern Indians, to remind us of the aggressions of the “empire of liberty.”
* Shrout, “A 'Voice of Benevolence from the Western Wilderness:' The Politics of Native Philanthropy in the Trans-Mississippi West,” Journal of the Early Republic 35 (Winter 2015), 553-78