The Irish, the Potato and the Choctaw

Winona LaDuke

Let me just say I am a fan of the Irish. Not a lick Irish, but I love the Irish, their music, their tragic sense of humor, resilience—and their food. Well maybe not the food, and I’m not much of a drinker, so not even a Guinness. But what I will tell you is that I’ve found many a kindred spirit in Ireland.

I traveled there in l98l, the height of the Hunger Strikes. There men were dying on the H Block, a notorious prison for political prisoners, including Bobby Sands, who had been elected as a Member of Parliament. Sands, as a member of the Irish Republican Army was not seated, and instead died in prison—the first of 17 to die in that horrible time. That was my first visit to Ireland, the first time I ever saw razor wire, armored personnel carriers in residential neighborhoods and my first riot. Leave it to the Irish to mess up my idea of what first world democracy looks like. And then write songs about it. 

So in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which has always been a bizarre holiday to me, I write this story about the Irish, the potato and the Choctaw.

The potato is one of the great gifts from the Western hemisphere. It’s a gift given by Indigenous peoples to the world, the same peoples who have provided about two thirds of the major food crops in the world (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate; just a few of the contributions). The lesson of potatoes, however, did not go with those tubers. That is to say the 3,000 or so varieties of potatoes perfected in South America illustrated immense agro biodiversity, variations in nutritional content, pest resistance, and agility to become the food that would feed the world.

Potatoes provide 7.5 million calories per hectare of land (compared to wheat offering 4.2 million calories) and provide a source of vitamin C that improves nutrition immensely. It’s argued that the potato liberated Europe from famine. After all, as historian Jack Weatherford notes, there were 111 famines in France from l371 to l79l, leaving a lean country indeed. The elegance of a potato (something which exists below ground but is poisonous above ground), meant that population would flourish thanks to this new source of nutrition. It can also be argued that the potato’s growth in Europe did not work out so well for those of us in the Western hemisphere after it helped secure world power status for Europe. 

Not so for the Irish. But that is, as we all now know, a result of British colonialism, which forced the Irish to grow a potato mono crop, until the blight came. The result: a million perished and another million emigrated. This was an enforced famine – wheat flourished in Ireland during the famine, but the British harvested and exported this wheat to feed their people in their colonial conquests worldwide. Had the Irish been able to access this food source, the number who died from hunger would have been far fewer.

Mono crops are dangerous. The Irish potato famine should have taught us that long ago. Today the potato mono crop is plaguing western Minnesota, where 50,000 acres of potato mono crop now demand extensive water and a cocktail of chemicals, contaminating groundwater in the region. That story is still unfolding as the RDO Offutt Company seeks to turn pine lands into potato fields, adding up to 27,000 acres more. (The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a very short comment period, open now. Please weigh in with your thoughts.)
But, back to St. Patrick’s Day. Let us recognize the fine relationship between Native people of the Americas and the Irish. In the city of Cork in Southern Ireland, a sculpture is being erected to honor the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaw Nation sent $170 (about $5000 in today’s money, according to Choctaw officials) to the Irish for famine relief in 1845.
“These gentle folk were at their most downtrodden, they raised $170 and sent it across the Atlantic to Ireland, to ease our famine woes,” sculptor Alex Pentek told the Irish Examiner

Pentek is finishing ‘Kindred Spirits,’ a giant, stainless steel sculpture in praise of the Choctaw people. “These people were still recovering from their own injustice. They put their hands in their pockets. They helped strangers. It’s rare to see such generosity. It had to be acknowledged.” The sculpture is a metal set of eagle feathers in a bowl form – $100,000 worth of homage. 

Just 13 years before the famine, the Choctaws were forced to march 1,200 miles on the Trail of Tears. The Choctaw, Cherokee, Muskogee, Chickasaw and Seminole (the Five Civilized Tribes) were forced at gunpoint to abandon their fertile lands and exiled to Oklahoma territory. On the way, at least 6,000 perished. 

“It was a slowly unfolding horror story. To see members of your family drop to the side of the road and to be powerless. To change that course of history, that stirred my imagination,” said Pentek. So it is, far away, there is a tribute to a little known page in history. 

On this St. Patrick’s Day, I want to remember the dignity of human spirit from the Choctaw to Bobby Sands, and the diversity and beauty of the potato, one of the great gifts to us all.

Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe, is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist and writer.

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