Jessica Militante is the first recipient of a Choctaw Ireland Scholarship, created to commemorate the historic connection between the Choctaw and Irish people created during the Great Famine. Here she writes about her Choctaw – and Cork – roots.
When I think of my Choctaw ancestors, the first word that comes to mind is resilient. My people are the embodiment of the word. In 1831, the Choctaw people were forcibly removed from their land in the southeast of the United States due to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.
The Choctaws were the first nation to endure the march, which began in an exceptionally harsh winter and continued for several months, for over a thousand miles, to what is now Oklahoma. The unfathomable conditions, lack of resources, and the widespread of disease during the Trail of Tears lead to thousands of Choctaws’ deaths. Yet the Choctaw people did not allow this incomprehensible trauma to destroy them. They persevered.
Resilient is also a word that I associate with my Irish ancestors. The people of Cork endured the catastrophic event of the Great Famine a few years later, between 1845 and 1852. The scarcity of food was extreme, and the residents of Cork were starving and suffering from famine-related diseases. They were hungry and scared, and yet they too persevered.
These two resilient nations of my ancestry came together in the most remarkable way. In 1847, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma heard of the great hardship the people of Cork were facing and felt compelled to assist them. They raised $170, today’s equivalent of over $5,000, to aid the city of Cork in their time of need. The Choctaws gifted this money to Cork not from a position of wealth but from one of empathy. Having just lived through their own unimaginable tragedy, they identified with the suffering happening in Cork and, out of pure generosity and love for humankind, wanted to help.
This immeasurable act of humanity has never been forgotten by the people of Cork. It is the reason that there is a gorgeous sculpture of nine, twenty-feet, stainless steel eagle feathers in the town of Midleton. It is also the reason that I am able to study at University College Cork.
I am the first recipient of the Choctaw Ireland Scholarship, a scholarship created to commemorate the beautiful connection between the Choctaw and Irish people. Ireland is showing that same generosity and love for the Choctaw nation with this scholarship which is allowing me to study for my master’s in Creative Writing here at UCC.
The second term of my one-year master’s programme starts this week, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my past five months in Cork. Last semester, I had the pleasure of having afternoon tea with UCC’s president, Dr Patrick O’Shea, along with the recipient of the George Mitchell Scholarship, Minhal Ahmed. We spoke about the motivation behind the Choctaw scholarship, fun places to visit around Cork, and, of course, the weather! Having been born in and lived the majority of my life in California, Irish weather has certainly been an adjustment.
My five roommates are all from various places in Ireland which has made it so easy to learn more about Irish culture. Between them and my Cork classmates, it’s clear to see that generosity and human kindness is still very much alive in Ireland.
I have been to visit the Kindred Spirits sculpture in Midleton twice now, once with my mom and once with a fellow Choctaw student, Chayla Rowley, who is studying in Dublin as a Fulbright scholar. Each time that I go, I stand in the middle of the circle, my Choctaw flag wrapped around my shoulders as the eagle feathers stretch towards the sky around me and I am overwhelmed by the strength and love I feel.
Further developing my creative writing at UCC is helping me toward achieving my goal of publishing a young adult novel. Throughout my own childhood and adolescence, I strongly connected with the trials and triumphs of the characters I read about which I feel played a vital role in my desire to become a writer. I want to provide other young adults with the same joy of representation in the novels they read and hope to inspire a similar desire to share stories as the novels I read did in me.
I have yet to decide where I plan to live after graduating from UCC. In addition to California, I have previously lived in England and Japan, but Cork has been as welcoming as if I had lived here my whole life. All the possibilities are quite exciting, and I look forward to what my future holds for me.
I am so honoured to receive this opportunity and proud of both my Choctaw and Irish ancestors for their immeasurable acts of resilience and generosity. Such acts are so rare, and I am thrilled to help in some small way to keep this connection strong.
Jessica Militante with UCC president, Dr Patrick O Shea, and Minhal Ahmed, recipient of the George Mitchell scholarship for 2019/20.