An Indian’s search for identity reaches fruition on Emerald Isle

Irish famine, tribe’s relocation created a bond

Gary White Deer discovered parallels between his Choctaw heritage and Ireland’s history of colonization and dispossession —and the Irish love of the land. Gary White Deer discovered parallels between his Choctaw heritage and Ireland’s history of colonization and dispossession —and the Irish love of the land. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)
By Helen O’Neill
Associated Press / July 11, 2010

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NEW YORK — Gary White Deer has spent a lifetime wrestling with his identity, his history, his sense of belonging.

Artist, teacher, medicine man, he has roamed the country — visiting elders, soaking up old stories and songs. He married a Kiowa woman whose family practiced traditional ways. He formed a native dance troupe, prayed at the sacred mound of Nanih Waiya in Mississippi, immersed himself in historic preservation groups, taught tribal history.

Still, he has always wondered: What does being a Choctaw mean in an age when it seems anyone with a drop of tribal blood could declare themselves Indian?

In the end, he found answers, but not on the reservations or anywhere he might have expected. He found them in Ireland.

He found them in the parallel tales of history — of colonization and dispossession and poverty. And in the Irish love of the land and celebration of ancient places — like the Hill of Tara, ancient mythological seat of the High Kings, and Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old passage tomb carved with Celtic symbols that resembled some Choctaw signs.

Even in the way the Irish struggled to preserve their native language, teaching it in schools, using it on road signs and documents.

What if, he wondered, the Choctaw had managed to do the same?

White Deer, 59, knew little about Ireland until the early 1990s, other than “they threw a big party for St. Patrick every year.’’ And then he met a group of Irish hikers at a tribal resort in Mississippi. He was working on an art commission. They had come to walk the historic “Trail of Tears,’’ to worship at Nanih Waiya, and to offer a donation of $20,000 to the Choctaw nation.

He was stunned. His own people commemorated the trail, but not like this, not with this determination to learn from the past and act on it.

The connection, he would learn, dated to a nearly forgotten tale that unfolded in 1847.

“Black ’47,’’ the Irish named it, one of the worst years of the Potato Famine. More than a million people died of disease and starvation during The Great Hunger and another million fled on “coffin ships’’ to America.

A world away, another sorrowing people heard their cries. Under Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Choctaw had been displaced from their homeland in Mississippi just a decade earlier and forced to march 600 miles to Oklahoma, thousands dying along the way. With memories of the Trail of Tears still fresh, they collected $170 — today’s equivalent of about $8,000 — and sent it to the starving people across the sea.

The Choctaw donation was largely forgotten until the 1990s when Irish researchers discovered references to it and other small donations from around the world during preparations for the 150th anniversary of the famine. Today, White Deer says the tribe’s extraordinary act was “like an arrow shot through time.’’

On both sides of the Atlantic, the story has changed lives, prompted donations to other starving nations, spurred Irish presidential visits, and forged deep bonds between the Choctaw and the Irish.

Perhaps no one’s life has changed more than that of Gary White Deer. And it began the day he met the Irish hikers in Mississippi.

Leading the group was Don Mullan, a human rights activist who had worked with nonprofit organizations fighting hunger around the world.

At 53, Mullan brims with ideas, big ones, about combating hunger and poverty and injustice — and about the power of history and symbolism to do so. And he gets things done. He counts Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean, and Pele as friends.

White Deer was impressed by Mullan’s tireless energy, by his faith that nonviolent activism can affect real change. “Don has this genius for how the lessons of the past can be used to achieve real change in the present,’’ White Deer says.

The two kept in touch. And in 1995, Mullan invited White Deer to join him on an annual 12-mile walk in County Mayo.

White Deer began visiting Ireland almost every year, invited back by art groups, human rights organizations, and environmentalists — anyone who felt the amiable Choctaw with his beads and his blessings could help them with their cause.

White Deer clearly enjoys his minor celebrity status. But he insists there are deeper, more spiritual motivations for his visits. “Ireland,’’ he says, “made me see my own history more clearly.’’ top stories on Twitter

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