How Gary White Dear of Ada, Okla., found himself on the Emerald Isle

By Helen Oneill, AP
Saturday, July 10, 2010

An Indian finds himself on the Emerald Isle

Gary White Deer has spent a lifetime wrestling with his identity, his history, his sense of belonging.

Artist, teacher, medicine man, he has roamed the country — visiting elders, soaking up old stories and songs. He married a Kiowa woman whose family practiced traditional ways. He formed a native dance troupe, prayed at the sacred mound of Nanih Waiya in Mississippi, immersed himself in historic preservation groups, taught tribal history.

Still, he has always wondered: What does being a Choctaw mean in an age when it seems anyone with a drop of tribal blood could declare themselves Indian?

In the end, he found answers, but not on the reservations or anywhere he might have expected.

He found them in Ireland.

He found them in the parallel tales of history — of colonization and dispossession and poverty. And in the Irish love of the land and celebration of ancient places — like the Hill of Tara, ancient mythological seat of the High Kings, and Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old passage tomb carved with Celtic symbols that resembled some Choctaw signs. Even in the way the Irish struggled to preserve their native language, teaching it in schools, using it on road signs and documents, preserving rural Irish speaking areas called the Gaeltacht.

What if, he wondered, the Choctaw had managed to do the same?

At 59, White Deer is a genial, gifted artist whose life, until the early 1990s, had largely revolved around his paintings (boldly colored portraits of Choctaw in traditional dress), raising a family of seven, and cultural studies.

He knew little about Ireland other than “they threw a big party for St. Patrick every year.” And then he met a group of Irish hikers at a tribal resort in Mississippi. He was working on an art commission. They had come to walk the historic “Trail of Tears,” to worship at Nanih Waiya, and to offer a donation of $20,000 to the Choctaw nation.

White Deer was stunned. His own people commemorated the trail, but not like this, not with this determination to learn from the past and act on it.

The Irish-Indian connection, he would learn, dated back more than a century, to a nearly forgotten tale that unfolded in 1847.

“Black ‘47,” the Irish named it, one of the worst years of the famine, which began with the failure of the potato crop in 1845 and lasted through the 1850s. More than a million people died of disease and starvation during An Gorta Mor — The Great Hunger — and another million fled on “coffin ships” to America.

A world away another sorrowing people heard their cries. Under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Choctaw had been displaced from their homeland in Mississippi just a decade earlier and forced to march 600 miles to Oklahoma, thousands dying along the way. With memories of the Trail of Tears still fresh, they collected $170 — today’s equivalent of about $8,000 — and sent it to the starving people across the sea.

The Choctaw donation was largely forgotten until the 1990s when Irish researchers discovered references to it and other small donations from around the world during preparations for the 150th anniversary of the famine. Today, White Deer says the tribe’s extraordinary act was “like an arrow shot through time.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, the story has changed lives, prompted donations to other starving nations, spurred Irish presidential visits and forged deep bonds between the Choctaw and the Irish.

Perhaps no one’s life has changed more than that of Gary White Deer. And it began the day he met the Irish hikers in Mississippi.

Leading the group was a man named Don Mullan, a human rights activist, who had worked with nonprofit organizations fighting hunger around the world. At 53, Mullan brims with ideas, big ones, about combatting hunger and poverty and injustice — and about the power of history and symbolism to do so. And he gets things done. He counts Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean and Pele as friends.

White Deer found himself immediately drawn to Mullan and his mission. But it was the Irishman’s personal story that impressed White Deer the most.

Mullan, who grew up in a working-class Catholic housing estate in Derry, Northern Ireland, was among the unarmed civil rights marchers fired on by British paratroopers on Jan. 30, 1972. Thirteen young men were killed on “Bloody Sunday” and the rage and pain that engulfed the province became a potent recruiting tool for the Irish Republican Army.

Mullan was 15 at the time. And yet he had turned away from violence, rather than embracing it like so many of his peers.

White Deer was impressed by Mullan’s tireless energy, by his faith that nonviolent activism can effect real change. “Don has this genius for how the lessons of the past can be used to achieve real change in the present,” White Deer says.

Mullan sensed a similar feeling in White Deer — in his drawings depicting the Trail of Tears, in his study of old tribal ways. He asked White Deer if he could use one painting — of a Choctaw mother and child in blowing snow — as an international symbol to fight world hunger.

The two men kept in touch. And in 1995, Mullan invited White Deer to join him on an annual 12-mile walk in County Mayo. Ireland’s own “trail of tears” retraces the trek of hundreds of starving poor in a futile effort to beg the British authorities for help.

Mullan was well aware of the symbolism. Newspapers and television stations carried dramatic photographs of the reverential Choctaw, festooned in feathers and beads, bowing in prayer along the trail.

For his part, White Deer understood his role. But he was unprepared to feel so moved. In the desolate beauty of the rocky Mayo hills that seemed to bleed into the Atlantic, he felt “as if the spirits of the famine dead were walking alongside me.”

White Deer began visiting Ireland almost every year, invited back by art groups, human rights organizations and environmentalists — anyone who felt the amiable Choctaw with his beads and his blessings could help them with their cause.

Irish people warmed to White Deer with his self-deprecating humor and quick ear. He picked up accents and expressions — “a soft day,” ”a wee sec.”

He visited schools and museums and pubs, appeared on Irish television and in a documentary about the famine. He planted a “peace tree” in Carrickfergus, where Andrew Jackson’s father was born. He sipped tea with the American ambassador and met with the former President Mary Robinson at her official residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

On one memorable occasion he stood before a class of rapt students in Dublin, solemnly teaching them about the old native ways.

Suddenly he burst into song: “Oro Se do Bheatha ‘Bhaile…”

It’s an old Irish rebel song and the teenagers were momentarily stunned. Then they cheered and clapped and sang along.

White Deer — stranger, showman and spiritual muse — had captivated an audience once again.

White Deer clearly enjoys his minor celebrity status. But he insists there are deeper, more spiritual motivations for his visits. “Ireland,” he says, “made me see my own history more clearly.”

Nowhere was that more true than in Derry, where he was invited to create an outdoor mural in 1998. Although peace talks were under way to end three decades of conflict, the province was still a place of barricades, tanks and guns. White Deer recalls wobbling on scaffolding as he struggled to paint an image of a Choctaw woman, in traditional dress, cradling an Irish baby. A military helicopter buzzed overhead. A riot brewed below.

“This isn’t an art commission,” he thought. “It’s a war zone.”

And yet he felt at home in the hilly streets of Derry. The city reminded him of the historic oppression of his own people, and of the scrutiny he still feels today in places where he knows he is unwelcome.

He learned to understand the historic divide between the unionists who support British rule and the nationalists who are opposed. It prodded him to think about the divide amongst his own people — between those who favor more assimilation into mainstream American culture and those, like White Deer, who dream of returning to a more traditional way of life.

Back home in Ada, Okla., White Deer began writing about those ways, and teaching them in his class at Bacone College in Muskogee. With his boss, Joe Bohannon, who chairs the division of American Indian studies at the college, he formed a group called the Choctaw Snake Band, invoking the name of a 1900s group that advocated independence. The band hopes to revive the Choctaw language, to one day form a separate Choctaw state.

White Deer speaks and writes passionately about the band’s lofty goals. But he is realistic. He knows that many will dismiss them as the self-serving rantings of someone who likes attention. Still, he says, he has to try. Ireland taught him that.

He has taught his Irish friends some powerful lessons, too.

“Gary has a real feel for the two worlds, the spirits of the past and the living and bridging those two worlds,” says Aisling Meath a 49-year-old journalist and researcher who befriended White Deer on one of his early visits. Meath lives in Skibbereen in County Cork, a picturesque coastal town in the southwest whose devastation during the famine is immortalized in a song called “Remember Skibbereen.” A large grassy field marks the spot where an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 famine victims were buried — wheeled in carts by dying relatives and dumped in a mass grave.

The field is just a short walk from Meath’s house. Yet for years, she couldn’t bring herself to go there. It was somehow too disturbing.

She visited the field for the first time last year, with White Deer. And she marveled at the irony — that it took a Choctaw from Oklahoma to make her confront the reality of her own history, right outside her own door. “There is something almost spiritual about his empathy with the land, with people, with history,” Meath says.

Another friend, Joe Murray, co-ordinator for a human rights organization called Action From Ireland, witnessed that same empathy when he introduced White Deer to a remote fishing village in County Mayo in 2005. The small community of Rossport had made international headlines in its fight against plans by Shell Oil and other companies to build a natural gas pipeline through the area and a refinery nearby.

Five fishermen had been jailed after ugly confrontations with police. And now an entire community had rallied in support.

White Deer was astounded by the crowd that spilled into the parish hall one evening. People had traveled from miles, not just fishermen, but farmers and schoolteachers and businessmen. Yet again, White Deer wondered: What if my own people could muster such passion for our cause?

He prayed with the people of Rossport. And he promised not to forget them.

Back home, White Deer threw himself into efforts to raise money for the Mississippi Choctaw who lost homes in Hurricane Katrina. But he tapped donors for another cause too. In 2007, White Deer returned to Rossport and presented the fishermen with $8,000 — the equivalent of the donation the Choctaw people made to the Irish 160 years earlier.

“It was such a lovely gesture,” Murray says. “Like a continuation of history, and so meaningful.”

For his part, White Deer calls it a small gesture from the heart. He is speaking not only of the Rossport donation, but the historical famine donation, too. “It was just one dispossessed people reaching out to help another,” he says. “They probably would be surprised at being remembered today.”

It has become kind of mantra for White Deer. He has said it many times before — in Dublin, in Derry, in Mayo, at the Irish consulate in New York a few weeks earlier where he was a guest of honor at an evening to commemorate the famine.

He repeats it now, on a recent hot evening, sitting in the Manhattan apartment of an Irish friend. The place is filled with photographs and mementoes from Ireland. The windows are open and the city hums outside. It all seems a world away from White Deer’s home in Ada, his travels through Ireland and his dreams for the Choctaw.

But White Deer doesn’t think so. He believe it is all connected, like beads on a cosmic chain, like the flow of life.

White Deer has just spent two days traipsing around the city with a filmmaker from Dublin, working on a documentary about the Choctaw-Irish connection. Among other places, they have visited the Irish hunger memorial garden in lower Manhattan, a quarter-acre grassy hill with the remnants of a famine-era stone cottage imported from Mayo. Etched into the stone base is a reference to the generous donation by “the Children of the Forest, our Red Brethern of the Choctaw nation.”

White Deer chuckles. He had never heard his people called Children of the Forest before. But he understands the power of symbolism and of myth. Ireland taught him that.

It was such a small gesture, he says. And yet the effects ripple to this day, across cultures, across decades, across the ocean.

Like an arrow shot through time.

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