How Hunger, Tears and Microbes Connected Kindred Spirits

Oct. 9, 2023

Despite a literal ocean of separation, deadly microbes forged a centuries-long friendship between 2 peoples whose histories are branches of the same tree. The “Indian question” and the “Irish question” had the same answer: forced removal and cultural erasure. In 1848, recently resettled on the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw people had almost nothing. Though reduced to extreme poverty, their sympathy was awakened, and tribal members donated their meager funds to help feed the starving Irish people during their Great Hunger. Rising above sorrow with sympathy and compassion, these kindred spirits grew their relationship and strengthened their bonds over more than 150 years. The following story details how, when COVID-19 exposed inequities on Navajo and Hopi reservations, the Irish people seized the opportunity to pay forward the precious gift given to their ancestors.

How Phytophthora infestans Causes Potato Blight

An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger of Ireland (1845-1852) was caused by the oomycete Phytophthora infestans—a fungus-like eukaryote that infects crops, including tomatoes and potatoes, which constituted the bulk of the average Irish person’s diet at the time.

Until recently, oomycetes were thought to be part of a “basal fungal lineage” because of their filamentous growth and their habit of feeding on decaying matter. However, new phylogenetic analysis has separated oomycetes from fungi and placed them closer to algae and green plants. Oomycetes differ from fungi in terms of structure, biochemistry, genome size and ploidy, cell wall composition and other biochemical and physiological characteristics. These organisms are responsible for multimillion dollar annual crop failures and comprise some of the worst plant pathogens in human history.

A series of 5 photos depicting the effects of P. infestans in a field, an individual plant, a potato and microscopic images of the organism.
1. A potato field affected by P. infestans blight. 2. Dark spots on the leaves of a potato plant. 3. A cross section of a blight infected potato. 4. A microscopic image depicting the filamentous growth of P. infestans. 5. Representative examples of closed sporangia (c) containing zoospores (z), open sporangia (o) and directly germinating sporangia (g) with the germ tube (gt).
Source: 1. Björn Andersson/Wikimedia Commons 2. Rasbak/Wikimedia Commons 3. I.Sáček/Wikimedia Commons 4. Mortel, J, et al/Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2009 5. Hunziker, L, et al/ Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2015

P. infestans, in particular, seems to be especially adept at avoiding the pattern-recognition receptors that plants utilize to defend themselves against pathogens. P. infestans utilizes a small cysteine-rich effector protein to colonize plants, and the genetic variability of this protein is an important part of the organism’s ability to evade detection.

It is difficult to overstate the devastation that P. infestans causes an entire crop. While most plant diseases only affect a specific part of the plant, for example the leaves or roots, this pathogen attacks every part of a plant. The first signs of infestation are dark spots on the leaves. Within days, the entire plant is covered, and potato tubers become inedible mush. Winds can carry the blight from field to field for miles, quickly making entire crops inedible. Furthermore, P. infestans thrives in damp conditions and can remain dormant in the soil and reinfect future crops. This ability to lie in wait for the next planting caused several years of failed crops and further worsened the effects of An Gorta Mór.

In the mid-19th century, potatoes in Ireland were grown almost exclusively from a single monoculture called “Lumpers.” This low genetic diversity left the Irish potato crop even more vulnerable to P. infestans infection, and the potato blight was able to spread almost unchecked.

The Irish Question

A Galway woman and child.
A Galway woman and child.
Source: Alfred Downing Fripp (1822–1895)/Wikimedia Commons

The stage was set for the Great Hunger long before P. infestans made its way across the Atlantic in the 1840s. The separation of the English monarchy from the Catholic church in 1534 was a major catalyst of conflict between Ireland and England. To suppress the influence of the Catholic church in Ireland, the Popery Act of 1704 required that inheritance for Catholics be split among the children of the landholder, which meant that over generations, holdings were subdivided multiple times. Decreased available land meant an increasing reliance on potatoes as a food source, due to their high yield per acre. While it is possible to subsist on a diet of solely potatoes and milk, the dependence upon a single staple crop contributed to the devastating consequences of the potato blight when it first arrived in 1845.

After years of conquest, rebellion and legalized discrimination, Catholic Ireland joined Protestant England to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Acts of Union 1800 placed Ireland under English rule and abolished local governance. This meant the Irish people were now governed by a distant political body with little-to-no say in the laws passed over them. Despite being a majority population, it was illegal for Catholics to own land. Absentee landowners prioritized cash crops to generate income rather than tenant food crops. This left tenants at the mercy of Protestant landlords and put heavy pressure to move away from their agricultural roots and resettle in larger cities. British statesman Benjamin Disraeli described the Irish question as: “a starving population, an absentee aristocracy and an alien Church, and, in addition, the weakest executive in the world.”

The prevailing social and economic theories of the time offered little assistance and often placed the blame for the plight of the Irish people at their own feet. The first blight struck in 1845, but P. infestans hibernated under the ground year after year. An Gorta Mór reached its deadly peak in Black ’47. The year began with one of the coldest winters in Irish history and ended in forced emigration and unimaginable loss of life.

The sketch of a woman, Bridget O'Donnel, and children.
The sketch of a woman, Bridget O'Donnel, and children.
Source: Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849/Wikimedia Commons

Nearly 1 million people died due to starvation and its downstream effects. Diseases like typhus and dysentery were prominent, and exposure deaths became common due to forced labor projects, combined with increased rates of vagrancy when absentee landlords evicted their tenants during the economic crisis caused by this tiny organism. A further 1.5 million people emigrated to other countries.

The Trail of Tears

The treatment of Native American peoples as a “problem” to be solved or a temporary obstacle to overcome predates the founding of the United States. When Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean and claimed the land for Spain, he wrote that he foresaw little difficulty in converting the native people to Christianity. He then kidnapped a group of them to show off in Europe. Later, despite the establishment of trade at the founding of the Virginia colony, relations were tense between the English and the local tribes, and when trade negotiations failed, the colonists would take what they wanted by force.

During the American Revolutionary War, various tribes fought on both the English and American sides. When it came time to draft a governing document, it would seem the approach to interactions with Native Americans had changed little. Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress shall have the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” This cements the idea of native tribes as potentially hostile external entities.

A Choctaw woman.
A Choctaw woman.
Source: George Catlin/Wikimedia Commons

As the U.S. population grew and expanded outward, conflicts inevitably arose between white settlers and tribes already living on the land. Treaties were made and broken with regularity, as new waves of people desired the resources of the land occupied by Native tribes. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed into law. This response to the "Indian Problem" authorized the forced resettlement of Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River onto land designated as Indian Territory. The 1,000 mile (1600 km) forced march became known as the Trail of Tears.

Beginning with the Choctaw tribe in 1830, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek set forth the terms of the exodus from Mississippi. Ultimately, more than 46,000 people from the Five Tribes were forcibly removed from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. Choctaw Chief George Harkins composed a letter to the American people upon the removal of his tribe.

“We go forth sorrowful, knowing that wrong has been done… Here is the land of our progenitors, and here are their bones; they left them as a sacred deposit… it is dear to us, yet we cannot stay.”

A map depicting the forced emigration of the 5 Tribes on the Trail of Tears.
The routes taken by the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Nations from the southeastern U.S. to present day Oklahoma.
Source: Nikater/Wikimedia Commons

It is estimated that 25%-33% of the population died due to starvation, disease, violence and exposure along the journey to Indian Territory. After 3 years of continuous relocations, the Choctaw finally settled in present-day southeastern Oklahoma and began to rebuild their lives.

A Precious Gift

In 1848, the Choctaw had not been in Indian Territory long when they were asked, during a tribal meeting, to donate to the Memphis Irish Relief Committee, which aimed to provide food and funds for the Irish people. A representative from the U.S. Indian Agency read a letter requesting assistance for the people of Ireland. The similarities in the histories of the Irish and Choctaw people seemed to have awakened the sympathies of tribal members. Pooling their personal funds, individual, anonymous Choctaw donors managed to raise $170, equivalent to over $6,000 in today’s money; an especially dear amount for a people reduced to extreme poverty.

The Impact of COVID-19

A coronavirus sign stands in the foreground of a photo of Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation Reservation.
A coronavirus sign stands in the foreground of a photo of Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation Reservation.
Source: Tanaonte/iStock

Nearly 200 years later, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed disparities and inequities in health care, as well as supply shortages, particularly for those living on Native reservations. Living conditions in these places can be difficult in the best of times. Homes on reservations often do not have electricity or running water and can be crowded, with multiple generations living in a single dwelling. In desperation, Navajo and Hopi volunteers started an online fundraising campaign for food and supplies on their reservations. The Irish people responded with generosity and compassion.

By May of 2020, over $800,000 in relief funds had come from Ireland alone. Many donations were accompanied with messages of thanks and remembrance to the Choctaw and First Nations for their assistance during their own times of trouble. One donor wrote:

"In grateful acknowledgement of the generosity of our First Nations brothers and sisters at a time when our people needed it, and you didn’t have much more than us. We remember."

This fundraiser currently stands at more than $8 million. The funds have not only answered immediate needs, but are also being used to build community and public health infrastructure, including 3 community centers focused on preserving culture and language, food security, sustainability, entrepreneurism and self-sufficiency.

Kindred Spirits

Upon hearing that the people of Ireland were donating to the Hopi and Navajo out of gratitude for the aid rendered during the Great Hunger, Choctaw Chief Gary Batton stated, “We are gratified—and perhaps not at all surprised— to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi nations. Our word for their selfless act is ‘iyyikowa.’ It means serving those in need. We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish Potato Famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have.”

The Choctaw tribe and the people of Ireland have continued to maintain their friendship across the centuries. Through public acts of solidarity, these 2 groups have demonstrated their bond. In 1990, Choctaw leaders traveled to County Mayo, Ireland, to lead the annual “Famine Walk,” a reenactment of a forced emigration over 100 miles (165km) in length taken by starving Irish to board ships bound for North America in 1848. Then, in 1992, a group of Irish people participated in a trek from Mississippi to Oklahoma commemorating the Trail of Tears.

A circle of steel eagle feathers stands in Midleton, Co Cork to remember the aid given by the Choctaw Nation during the Great Famine.
A circle of steel eagle feathers stands in Midleton, Co Cork to remember the aid given by the Choctaw Nation during the Great Famine.
Source: Gavin Sheridan/Wikimedia Commons

In 2017, Batton visited Middleton, Ireland, for the dedication of “Kindred Spirits”—a sculpture created by Irish artist Alex Pentek. A circle of 20 feet (6 m) tall stainless steel eagle feathers symbolizes a bowl of food. In 2018, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced a scholarship program for Choctaw youth to study in Ireland. Through perseverance and dedicated effort, both the Choctaw and Irish peoples have managed to preserve their history, language and cultures from threats on a scale ranging from imperial to microscopic.

Author: Alicea Hibbard, MHA

Alicea Hibbard, MHA
Alicea Hibbard, MHA, joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Ethics and IDEAA Senior Associate in 2023.