By Senator Lena C. Taylor
With Wisconsin’s Safer at Home Order still in place, I have some extra time on my hands. I have busied myself with catching up on work, cleaning and ultimately watching TV. It was in doing the latter, that I learned about the “Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund.” This is a GoFundMe account that has recently been set up to help Native Americans in Arizona hit hard by COVID-19. However, the story behind the fund is 173-years old.
You see, in 1847 there was something known as the Great Potato Famine. I have to be honest; I don’t remember learning about this in grade school. So, I Googled it! First, I read about the Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, that started in 1845, on the History.com website. It appears that somewhere along the way, the names merged into the “Great Potato Famine”. According to the site, “a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans (or P. infestans) spread rapidly throughout Ireland. The infestation ruined up to one-half of the potato crop that year, and about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years. Because the tenant farmers of Ireland—then ruled as a colony of Great Britain—relied heavily on the potato as a source of food, the infestation had a catastrophic impact on Ireland and its population. Before it ended in 1852, the Potato Famine resulted in the death of roughly one million Irish from starvation and related causes, with at least another million forced to leave their homeland as refugees.”
This was pretty remarkable history, but no mention of indigenous people or the Navajo and Hopi tribe. I kept looking through my Google searches. Finally, I stumbled upon the story of a $170 act of kindness that was at the heart of the GoFundMe relief fund. Roughly five years before the people of Ireland would be devastated by the loss of their potato crops, in America an estimated 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida. Land their ancestors had occupied and cultivated for generations. The federal government forced the indigenous people, who had owned and occupied this land for generations, off the land. They were made to relocate to a territory designated for “Indians” thousands of miles away. Most of their people had to walk the grueling journey. Thousands of people lost their lives on what has come to be called the “Trail of Tears.”
When word spread to the tribes, that hundreds of thousands of Irish people were losing their lives to the potato famine, the Choctaw people collected $170 and sent it to the country. Today, that $170 would be the equivalent of nearly $6000. For the Choctaw people, Ireland’s story of suffering resonated all too well. Ireland has never forgotten the act of kindness.
In Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, Indigenous communities have been devastated by COVID-19. The Navajo Nation has 2,474 confirmed cases and suffered 73 deaths, to date. From across the globe, Ireland was watching. They have raised nearly $3 million dollars to help out the Navajo and Hopi tribes. I wasn’t taught this bit of history in grade school, but it is a lesson I will never forget. Compassion paired with action creates change.