I’m proof of Cork bond with Choctaw people

Claire Green Young recently graduated from a Masters course at UCC. Sarah Horgan hears of the fascinating links between Cork and the Choctaw people
I’m proof of Cork bond with Choctaw people

Claire Green Young recently graduated from UCC with a Masters degree in Museum Studies, thanks to the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship.

A NATIVE American hailing from a reservation in Oklahoma is reaping the rewards of her generous ancestors following a donation to the people of Ireland dating all the way back to 1847.

Claire Green Young recently graduated from University College Cork (UCC) with a Masters degree in Museum Studies, thanks to the Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship.

The initiative was introduced to acknowledge the generosity and humanitarianism displayed by the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma who gifted funds to the Irish during famine times. A monument in Bailick Park, Midleton, known as the Kindred Spirits sculpture, serves as a reminder to this day of that unforgettable gesture.

The masterpiece comprises stainless steel eagle feathers arranged in a circle to resemble a bowl of food. It was created by Alex Pentek from the Sculpture Factory in Cork City.

Claire, from Wright City, Oklahoma, home of District 7 of the Choctaw nation, has now secured the prestigious role of curator at a local Choctaw Cultural Centre, thanks to her determination and UCC qualification.

“My dream has been realised now which is kind of incredible,” she told The Echo. “I thought this was a position that I would retire into. Being as young as I am, I am lucky that the tribe and community here believes in me and the work I do enough to offer me this opportunity.

“It was always my intention to come home. I was very lucky to be raised in the heart of the Choctaw nation in Oklahoma in an area where our culture is very much available and prevalent for the youth to learn and hold on to. 

"There are a lot of incredible community members who really pushed me towards this trajectory that I’ve found myself on. It’s a really tight-knit community within the bounds of the reservation and a very special area.”

She spoke about how links between the Cork and Choctaw community have only strengthened over time. “The connection between Ireland and the Choctaw nation goes back to 1847 when that link was formed through the famine. Our ancestors were a little over 14 years post-removal in the 1830s when we were taken away from our homelands in Mississippi to Indian territory now known as Oklahoma.

“Not so long after, our ancestors managed to get funds to send over for the Irish people. Just hearing about the famine, I think they felt a certain kind of kinship with the situation that was occurring under these dire circumstances. That’s something really special to me.”

Claire highlighted the similarities between Cork and her home town.

“Even through the lasting effects of colonialism, we have managed to preserve our language and pass down our cultures and our stories for future generations.”

The 24-year-old graduated from UCC in a traditional Choctaw dress handmade by an elder in the community. “She was so elated that I took one of her dresses to Cork,” Claire beamed. “The diamond pattern is very visible and represents the diamond battle snake - an animal that Choctaw people have held in close kinship for a long time and have a deep respect for. They protected our crops, which formed a big part of that connection. I was able to bring her back a UCC t-shirt in return which she was really happy with.”

Claire revealed she was privileged to have had the chance to visit the Kindred Spirits sculpture.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as the sun hitting those feathers,” she said. “The artist did such a great job capturing the uniqueness of each one and the beautiful symbolism. I work with a lot of people who had the opportunity to go to Ireland and be there for the unveiling. It’s something really special not a lot of people have had the chance to see and to us it was monumental."

The UCC graduate had previously studied in other parts of the US before moving to Cork. “After coming from Oklahoma to New
England, I realised there were people out in the world that had never met a native American person. I didn’t realise this was a novelty for some people but became well equipped to navigate the stereotypes. There are sometimes the well-intentioned people saying the wrong things or even the ‘not so well intentioned’ people saying the wrong things.

“However, I had a wonderful experience in Cork in terms of people being willing to listen and grow in their understanding of what it means to be a native person in the 21st century. Because of the size of Cork, I had expected people to be stand-offish. Nonetheless, everyone was so kind and friendly. It was the same kind of hospitality that I experienced in my own community.”

Claire extended her gratitude to UCC for allowing her avail of the unique scholarship. “McCurtain County is one of the poorest counties in Oklahoma,” she explained. “It’s a place that not many people leave. At a younger age, I took that for granted and really wanted out. I’m grateful that through leaving I saw how special what I had at home was.

“I’m happy to have that perspective and It’s one of the greatest privileges in the world to be viewed as a role model by Choctaw people. I realise how lucky I am to have a whole tribe behind me who put me on this trajectory.”

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