Famine Memorial Dublin Photocall
Between 1845 and 1852 some one million Irish people died of starvation and disease. These sculptures stand at Customs House Quays in Dublin in honor of those lost during that time. The painfully thin sculptures, by Rowan Gillespie, look as if they are walking toward ships.

10 Stunning Similarities Between Irish and Native Historic Experiences

Christina Rose

The British over the centuries were equal opportunity offenders when it came to colonizing other cultures. From Ireland to the Americas, India and Australia and more, the British waged destruction on the world’s Indigenous Peoples for centuries.

Acts of genocide upon Natives are well known to Native peoples in the Americas, but according to Katie Kane, the Irish were the first to suffer the mistreatment, genocide, starvation and other abuse during colonization. According to Kane, professor of the Colonial Studies Program at the University of Montana, the Brits even tried to put the Irish on reservations. Kane said the Irish, Africans and Natives in the Americas lived tribal, indigenous lifestyles that offended the British.

From 1845 through 1850 the Great Famine of Ireland, caused by failed potato crops, resulted in at least 1 million indigenous Irish dead and another 2 million who fled Ireland for America—a full 25 percent of the Irish population. Some of those who left on “Coffin Ships,” so called because they were packed with starving, ill, and impoverished people who arrived in the United States, some without even clothes, came to Montana, following work in the copper mines. With comparable cultures and similar experiences of colonization, the Natives and Irish intermarried, often with the French, and came to be known as the Métis. Many live today on the Rocky Boy Reservation, Kane said, adding that the Métis now produce a “gorgeous” music that blends Irish fiddling and drums, and dance steps that reflect Native culture and Irish jigs.

Famine Monument by Rowan Gillespie in Dublin, Ireland. (Wikipedia)

Loretta Lynde, an Irish descendent whose family has lived on the Crow Reservation in Montana since the mid-1800s, said there were only a few other whites living there when her great-grandparents arrived, and when Lynde attended the tribal school on the Crow Reservation the Native population was still 6 to 1.

Lynde said her family always maintained their Irish identity and she travels to Ireland frequently, though she was always immersed in the Crow culture. She calls the similarities between the two cultures, “stunning.”

Over the years, Lynde compiled a list of similarities. Here it is, with information from other sources as well.


Both the Irish and Natives were first invaded by people whose religion was Catholicism.

British Occupation

Both Natives and the Irish were occupied by the British—both were sent to boarding schools and forced to abandon their traditional language and culture. Both suffered genocide, starvation and diseases at the hands of the British. In her paper “Nits Make Lice,” Kane compared the Sand Creek Massacre with the massacre at Drogheda. In both, British military figureheads told soldiers before going into battle, “Kill them all because nits make lice.”

In The Rebellion of 1641, R. Barry O’Brien writes, “The warfare which ensued… resembled that waged by the early settlers in America with the native tribes. No mercy whatever was shown to the natives, no act of treachery was considered dishonourable, no personal tortures and indignities were spared to the captives. The slaughter of Irishmen was looked upon as literally the slaughter of wild beasts. Not only the men, but even the women and children who fell into the hands of the English were deliberately and systematically butchered. Year after year, over a great part of all Ireland, all means of human subsistence was destroyed, no quarter was given to prisoners who surrendered, and the whole population was skillfully and steadily starved to death.”

An illustration of an Irish family saying goodbye to immigrants during the Irish famine.

Traditions Reemerging

Both maintained their spiritual practices underground and both are seeing a resurgence of their practices and ways.  Lynde said, “Even today as the old ways appeared to have been tamped down by Christianity, they are reemerging. You are seeing a lot more pow wows here, and for the Irish, they are going back to their old ways and even talking about the druids.”

Oral Traditions

Neither Natives or the Irish had an original history of a written culture, and both passed their earth and nature based customs and culture through oral traditions.


Both the Irish and Natives are matriarchal and recognize the important balance of men and women. Both have had powerful female figures in their history and origin stories.


Both were stereotyped and belittled, and were believed by the British to be less than human. Kane said that even though they were white, “The Irish were assumed to be lower on the tree of racial hierarchy in the 19th century. They were considered to be racially other.”

Being on Time

Irish time is the same as Indian time, which pretty much means, not on time.

Nomadic Lifestyle

Both lived a tribal and seasonally nomadic lifestyle, and the Irish clans were like the Native tribal bands. There are still areas in Ireland where families have lived for centuries, and maintain their clan names. “Prior to the 1600s, when all the land was transferred to the British, the Irish were nomadic, which was very threatening to the British who were used to people being fixed in one place,” Kane said, noting that the indigenous Irish did not build cities; they were all built by the Vikings and the British. “The whole of Irish history is filled with laws against the language in the 16th century, Irish women’s cloaks, and Irish style of dress,” Kane said. “If you look at the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they say again and again, ‘these Native people are like the wild Irish, they wear the same clothes and have the same houses,’ even though they didn’t. The British were colonizing both places and were trying to understand both peoples through each other.”

People display the flags of Ireland and Canada while posing with the sign for the Gaeltacht Cheanada, in Ontario, Canada (Photo: Oireachtas Gaeilge Cheanada Facebook page)

Close to Nature

Both lived according to the seasons, and celebrated solstices. There was always a person who knew plant medicine, and both cultures had spirit beings, and knew about “little people.” There was a strong connection, kinship, to the land, and communication between animals and people were accepted. “The Celtic cross comes from the sun religion,” Lynde said. “When the monks came, the Irish said, ‘We will stop worshipping the seasons and the sun and we will put up your cross, but our cross is going to have this interesting aspect to them.’ That circle around the cross is the sun, so it was really a merger.”

Trail of Sorrow

Each walked a trail of sorrow that resulted in the death of their people. An Irish Central story says that in 1847, 16 years after the Trail of Tears and in the midst of the famine, the Irish of Louisbourough, County Mayo, were told to report to the Poor Relief in hopes of receiving food. The officers were gone before the Irish arrived, so they walked 15 miles to the home of British who had seized their lands, in hopes of finding the officials there. When the Irish arrived, they were turned away at the door, and told those in the house could not be disturbed during their lunch. Once turned away, many were found dead along the road, some with grass in their mouths, trying to sate their hunger in any way they could.

When the Choctaw (and according to research by Kane, the Cherokee) heard of this, they raised $170, the equivalent today of $5,000, for food for the Irish. The kindness has not been ignored by the Irish, who are now creating a sculpture in honor of the Choctaw.

RELATED: Huge Sculpture Commemorating Choctaw Kindness Takes Shape in Ireland

Choctaw officials came to Ireland in 1990 to remarch the long walk with the Irish. In 1992, 22 Irish officials joined the Choctaw for a remarch of the Trail of Tears. While in Oklahoma, they visited the graves of those who had originally sent funds, writes Kane in her yet unpublished research.

The walk in Ireland is marched each year with attending dignitaries who come from all over the world calling for an end to hunger everywhere.

Here’s a video from a remarch:


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



anny's picture
Submitted by anny on
This article makes some good points but is inaccurate on so many points, I'm a shocked you printed it. Some Irish in America and abroad would like to pretend to 'be like natives.' Then they can further pretend they had nothing to do with genocide and colonialism. Not good! Despite discrimination against the Irish, they too participated in the terrible wrongs that happened in this land. The Irish too held slaves, they too colonized huge swathes of Native land. They fought in 'Indian wars.' And as far as this so-called Irish history right here, it is full of inaccuracies that erase real histories, which is a problem! The 'monks' who brought Catholicism to Ireland WERE Irish. St. Patrick was Irish! Catholicism started VERY early in Ireland. People converted, they were NOT forced. And certainly they were not forced by 'the British' since that country and identity did not even exist as an entity at that time! The Irish DID have a writing system since before the 5th century, Ogham, and after the 5th, Old Irish. They were very much a literary people. They wrote in Latin and in Irish, at length. Latin.... not English. Why, because English at that time DID NOT EXIST as a tongue. They were writing in Ireland while the rest of Europe was not writing. 'Druids' and all that is NOT something that exists even remotely within living practice or memory in Ireland the way that Indigenous religions do here. The history of it is long gone and mostly lost, and only about conjecture now. And druidism and such practices existed as much in Britain as Ireland, if not more so - because druids lasted LONGER in Celtic Britain than in Ireland. Consider Stonehenge. It is a solstice site. There are many sacred stones throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. Furthermore, the IRISH monks helped to re-catholicize the English lands. Britain was pagan, with Vikings, Anglo Saxons, Jutes, and Celtic people - all tribal and pagan peoples. DNA tests have proven that the Angles and Saxons and vikings did NOT wipe out Celts in Britain, but intermarried with them and made a third way. (In fact, even the Celts were not indigenous to those lands, but displaced and absorbed the Picts.) The history is complex and does not fit into neat, race-based stereotypes. Meanwhile. while they were doing tribal, pagan life in Britain, the Irish were Catholic. The British country people have maintained many pagan practices, as many, if not more than the Irish. And to lump all the British cultures in with the original colonizers is false. Many British were very poor, brutalized, rural people. They did not all have access to ships and gold to galavant around the globe - those adventures were funded partly on their backs, with their stoop labor. And yet, like the Irish, despite poverty, suffering, and the fact of having been brutally colonized at home by their own elite, they too partook of the chance to get lands here. Stereotypes don't help anybody. 'Irish boarding school' is a huge stretch. Nobody came and rounded up Irish children and took them from their parents and stuck them in boarding schools hundreds of miles away. In Ireland they had 'National Schools' and the way they were set up was complicated and had as much to do with rival religious denominations in Ireland as anything. If a school taught a religion you did not agree with, you could take your kid out. Not so for Native children. The Irish language revival was as much a protestant Anglo-Irish project as a Catholic Irish one. AND, to come back to this side of the pond with my critique, the Metis were and are primarily Native, French, And Scottish. It was the Scottish and French who intermarried primarily with Ojibwe, Cree, and other Indigenous peoples. That step dancing and fiddling comes from the Highlands and the Scots-Irish (who are Scots,) not Ireland, and from the inventiveness of Indigenous peoples. The Metis have Native names, French names and Scottish names primarily. One sympathetic Irish family in Crow lands does not disprove the fact that the Irish in America, as a generalization, were deeply racist, and brought plenty of their own violence to this land. This is documented, not invented history. Please lets not whitewash the past. Let's not have white people pretend, in order to avoid problematic truths of American and Canadian history. We were ALL 'like native people' once upon a time in Europe. Those times existed in ancient history, whereas here, they are in LIVING memory. This is a different situation in the 'Americas,' and mushing these histories together helps nothing. It does not help anybody to spin a pretend history - it discredits the attempt to bring true history to light. And it makes a hash of the work of white Americans of all kinds who really DO want to face the terrible histories of this country square on, and to do differently. We are out here, and we are real, and we don't want white lies to cover the attempt to admit to and face a legacy of violence and genocide. We want to look true history in the face and say YES, this happened, and my people were part of it, and it must now stop. Ireland was indeed colonized and this was a brutal history. Tell that history, of course. (But do it accurately.) Colonized people have stories they can share in common. But the pain of that brutal history never stopped the Irish from inflicting pain on this shore as soon as they got a foothold. When the Irish came here, they availed themselves of the opportunity to be white people as soon as they could, and then to accept all the advantages that white identity entailed, including for example the chance to take land that was not theirs. Lets not pretend this isn't so. This is what Europeans did, many who came from terrible, suffering histories, like Irish, Scots, Jews, or yes, English rural poor - they gave up their ethnicity and culture to take on a raced identity, so that they could live in proximity to the 'top of the heap.' These decisions were OFTEN made in pain, hunger, desperation, historical trauma, and suffering - and so this history is complex. But from the Native American side, what is significant is that even the most down-trodden European was permitted to take Native land, and to participate in a racist culture, and to be protected and aided by that racist culture and its institutions in a way that Native people, Black people and others who could not put on a 'white face,' were not allowed. FACE TRUTH so we can CHANGE.

drudwy's picture
Submitted by drudwy on
There are some telling truths in this article that it does well to consider - imperialism and racism do not create, they consume and destroy - not just human dignity, property and life but, if they can, they try to destroy belief, religion, art, language and anything that sustains the identity of the victims. But we must be careful how we retell our history, no matter how much comfort the story, told with only a loose respect for facts might give us. Please take care when using the term 'Britain' and British when you are in fact referring to the English Crown and the English State. The state of 'Britain' is a very modern concept, a propaganda exercise to persuade the victims of the English state's first acts of imperialism and attempted ethnocide that it would be to their eternal advantage to give up all resistance and accept as an honor the 'gift' of becoming subjects of the foreign invader, in their own land where formerly they were free citizens. (The peoples who became the English first came to steal a land with at least a thousand, possibly two thousand years of tribal civilization) The first nations of the island at this time were celtic peoples, whose language and traditions still (amazingly) just about exist as Welsh in the West of Britain, and with remnants still honored in the very south west, in Cornwall. Their tribes were overwhelmed and wiped out (although thousands of their place names remain) in England and what is now Southern Scotland. They had relatives living in Scotland, a people we now call Picts, who were subsumed by later invasions of peoples and cultures, including another celtic language, from Ireland, (related to Irish). In the 16 th Century, The King of England (who was of part Welsh descent) Crown passed a law outlawing the ancient laws of the Welsh and made it a condition of holding office or receiving justice that Welsh be 'extirped' (done away with) and only English be spoken. Down 600 years, Welsh traditions and language survived constant oppression by the English and even in my youth, the English law was used to seize land for the military and drown valleys in Wales to supply water to England, driving the last of the easternmost Welsh speaking communities to extinction. My grandfather's generation were physically punished for speaking Welsh and became ashamed of it; when I was a youth, my school did everything to deny me the right to learn and speak Welsh. Sounds familiar? The English did the same to the native peoples of Scotland as well as Ireland before taking this pernicious immorality abroad to the 'New World'. Our peoples the 'Cymry' ('Compatriots', companions) also called their country 'Prydain' and it is from this that the English, even today, have the world confused by using Britain to presume we are all 'one nation' and happy to be taken as 'British=English'. We are not one nation and we hope one day to have our recognition - Scotland may achieve this in my lifetime. No doubt their were Welsh citizens who took part in the imperial outrages, but we know of many who were very different. The English queen Elizabeth used one of our oral legends, (about a Welsh chief who sailed west in the thirteenth century CE to settle, allegedly with the Mandan people) as an excuse to claim all of America for the English crown. Dafydd ap Tomos (David Thompson), an early map maker settled with a First Nation wife and worked to record the languages and traditions of the tribes he lived or traded with (recent analysis shows that his phonetics were based on Welsh and more accurately transcribed the pronunciation than English speaker attempts. In Argentine Patagonia, Chubut province this year celebrates 150 years since the arrival of Welsh refugees from English rule and honors them for living in harmony and good will among the Tehuelche (Aonikenk) and other First Nation peoples. The Welsh language is still spoken in Patagonia (supported by volunteers from Wales and teachers sent by the Welsh government) and among the enthusiastic learners are many who are descended not from the Welsh but from the Tehuelche. So let's acknowledge the difficult truths, keep away from generalizations and be careful to respect each other's stories - The Crown and 'empire' of England, is not the same as the peoples or countries of Britain (Wales and Scotland and England) or of the 'United' Kingdom/British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales and the remnant of the English invasion of Ireland). We also share many aspects in our history - we had a clan structure, strictly oral culture (taking 24 years to learn!) and wisdom about nature, plants and the natural world that lasted as oral lore until the last century. We did not build cities, inheritance was shared equally between men and women, we used round skin boats to fish wild salmon (a handful still know how) and originally lived in great round houses of wood and reeds with stone/adobe foundation walls (a few English style adobe and thatched houses are still lived in). We also were the best bowmen in Europe! Our language is in a far stronger state than Irish and we are happy to share knowledge of how we have built voluntary and then government supported schools that attract the children of non native-language speaking parents. We have our own television and radio station and our parliament (less powerful than State legislature) has recognised that Welsh should have equal official status. But in truth, Welsh is in great danger and is still dying out around the country as the last native speakers and heartland areas (communities where Welsh is the first language of the majority) are lost.

lmann's picture
Submitted by lmann on
Lots of good information but a couple items need to be addressed: I will strongly disagree on the section of Oral Traditions. Certainly intellectual, cultural, spiritual and social information was transformed orally. But there were many forms of written communication such as Wampum belts, birch bark scrolls and geographic markings comparative to Chinese Characters that were read by select individuals. There was also written information on stones, trees and other locations. Scholars including Abenaki Professor Lisa Brooks in her book: The Common Pot, has done extensive research on this. Western philosophy and their noesis is grounded for the most part, in written forms of any kind. To exclude Indigenous writing is misleading and has been used to juxtapose Tribal noesis from Eurocentric; to falsely discern the “civilized” from the “primitive.” What I see even more problematic in this piece is the so-called Indian Time. This is nothing more than a pejorative stereotype that we need not embrace. For example, Natives are some the most successful farmers in human history. Working and knowing the land takes precision and expert “timing.” Watching weather, changing patterns and cycles of plant and wild life, moon phases, when to move to different locations and so on. And… to be ready in the blink of an eye for any sort of danger to your community. Native People where ready for anything, anytime anywhere. Lets not forget that.

florm's picture
Submitted by florm on
Anny makes many good points, and adds information that is as long as the article. My point is that the Irish and other Angle Saxon indigenous people were required to 'forget' that they were native people to survive. That made it MUCH EASIER to thereafter become a perpetrator of the same behavior. Waking people up to that reality - of being people with similar values - who were required for the same reasons to abandon their values to survive - is how the healing and coming to terms with what they themselves did here happens. Its the same healing that is required to forgive native peoples who also sold out or did the same thing. After all, there were Indian mayordomo's and many who had to go with the flow. As the Catholic Church comes to terms with the definition of sainthood, its valuable even in that respect to look back on history and look at what horrific and drastic steps have been taken against all peoples who believe in the sun, the earth and any tradition connected to those - instead of the church. We must ask ourselves - if we are Catholic - what new direction does the Church want to take. Now, in 2015, we have to consider that past before moving forward. I think its healthy to recognize those first commands to put down their values, waking up from the fog to recognize one in the other is the start to healing on a much grander scale - just consider how many peoples and cultures were impacted by the wave of activity over thousands of years. That's a lot of healing and coming to terms.

Tilda's picture
Submitted by Tilda on
This article shows the similarities of British / US colonizing policies towards Ireland and Native Americans. I assume, the article refers mainly to the seventeen, eighteen and early nineteen hundreds; therefore, I did not find any inaccuracies in the article. There are striking similarities from land grab, genocide, discrimination, to cultural genocide by the British. NO DOGS, NO INDIANS AND NO IRISH ALLOWED was a common sign in the American midwest. I suppose there is a social hierarchy among the pariah implied. The Irish were not just victims, neither were Native Americans. And yes, the Irish took part in the colonization of North America. They were the first of the boats hired for the US Army. Anne your I overflew your comment and discovered some inaccuracies. St. Patrick was not Irish, he was British and came as slave to Ireland first. Furthermore the Ogham script were just runes mainly used on stone as property markers, but never used for literature etc. Furthermore there were schools for bards and druids in Ireland, which were destroyed in the cultural genocide during the seventeen hundreds.