Donations to support Native American communities dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic have been flowing in from an unlikely source in the past six months.
A GoFundMe campaign to support the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation was launched in March and has so far raised $6 million — more than $1 million of which has been donated by Irish citizens. The rest has mostly come from individuals, businesses, and nonprofits around the US, the Independent reported.
The Navajo Nation, an area that straddles Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and the largest Native American reservation in the US, was initially hit very hard by COVID-19 because of a lack of access to clean, running water. Severe food insecurity and a delay in federal aid further exacerbated the struggle. The Hopi reservation is part of the Navajo Nation area too.
The donations from Ireland were a welcome surprise, related to a historic debt and connection the country has with Native American people. In 1847, when people in Ireland were suffering during what became known as the great famine, the Choctaw Nation, another Native American tribe, Oklahoma, sent $170 — equivalent to $5,000 in today’s money — to help save starving families.
The famine had an huge and devastating impact in the history of Ireland. It caused around 1 million deaths, almost 1 in 8 of the country’s population at the time, and a further 2 million people emigrated away from Ireland over the decade between 1845-1855. Many left for the US.
The famine began with a poor crop yield but was handled poorly by the British government, which reduced relief and kept laws in place that meant Ireland was still exporting what little grain it had yielded. As Native Americans had also suffered greatly from British colonial oppression at the time — they had been forced from land and killed by violence and disease outbreaks — they sent the funds as an act of solidarity, and it was used to buy animal feed, blankets, and food.
Just like in the past, the individual donations from approximately 26,500 Irish citizens in 2020 have been used to buy food items like corn, and thousands of gallons of water on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
As Global Citizen reported in May between 15% and 40% of Navajo households do not have access to clean, running water. It’s therefore been difficult for people to consistently wash their hands during pandemic, fueling an outbreak as many families are having to ration water. At one point the reservation had the highest per capita rate of infection in the US.
Speaking about the influx of donations to the fundraiser from Ireland, Cassandra Begay from the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief group, told reporters they were surprised at first.
“One of our leadership members started noticing that we were receiving a large sum of donations from Ireland... And it’s like what’s going on? Is our account being hacked?” she said.
But Begay added: “We will never forget the history we made together. We will never forget how the Irish made us feel heard and seen in this beautiful way.”
Since March the Navajo Nation enacted strict lockdowns and in September announced it had succeeded in slowing down the spread, reporting no new cases for a week on Sept. 9.