Friday, July 25, 2008

The Long March


When Lisa put forth the Summer Reading Challenge as a topic for the 7th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture, I pondered what to submit. First I thought of my favorite Irish author, Maeve Binchy, whose novels make terrific summer reads (or good winter ones, wrapped up in an afghan with a hot drink nearby!). Trouble is, I've read all her books available in the U.S., and her latest won't be published over here until 2009. Besides, I wanted something a little more pertinent to a genealogy topic. I remembered my favorite quote by Irish poet William Butler Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire." (I can correlate that to the genealogy vs. family history issue.) But I'm not a big reader of Yeats, so that was no good, either.

Aha! My mind flew back to when I was a homeschooling mom, over nine years ago (was it really that long?!), and I had found some interesting recommended books while teaching a Social Studies unit on Native Americans to my then second-grade daughter. One in particular was given high praise no matter in what resource it was listed: The Long March: the Choctaw's Gift to Irish Famine Relief by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Hillsboro, Oregon: Beyond Words Pub., 1998). It is a creative non-fiction work about a young Choctaw boy, Choona, who overhears his elders discuss taking up a collection to help the starving Irish during the potato famine. Choona knows, even though the adults do not speak of it, that his family endured hardship and suffering during the Trail of Tears and wonders how they can possibly want to aid white people, who live so far away.

This incredible true story was beautifully illustrated by the author using as models the family members of Gary Whitedeer, himself an award-winning artist and historic preservationist who has been featured on TBS's The Native Americans and National Geographic's When Ireland Starved. The impoverished Choctaw nation raised $170 (equivalent to $5,000 today) to aid the Irish cause. If you have children in your life--and even if you don't--you will want to obtain this book. It is an emotional experience, and I dare you to read it without shedding a tear or two!

The book was named "A Smithsonian Notable Book for Children" in 1998 and won the Children's Books of Ireland BISTO Book of the Year Merit Award, 1999. But there's more to all this. In 1992, eight native Irish citizens retraced the steps of the 500-mile Trail of Tears as repayment for the Choctaw's great gift, and to raise awareness of famine relief in Somalia. In 1995, the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, visited the Choctaw Nation to personally thank them. Two great nations, both knowing suffering and starvation, are bonded at a deeply emotional and spritual level. It is a heritage of which anyone would be proud.
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