Gary Whitedeer: One man’s affinity with Ireland’s Great Hunger

Waylong Gary Whitedeer.
Waylong Gary Whitedeer.

Twenty years ago Native American Indian Waylon Gary Whitedeer was invited to travel to Ireland to represent his tribe in a commemoration of the Irish Famine.

During the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór, as it is known in Irish) members of the Choctaw tribe donated $170 dollars to the people of Ireland, in recognition of their suffering and as a reflection of the hard times the Choctaw had themselves endured in colonial times.

It was the first time that Waylon would set foot on Irish soil - and little did he know that he would go on to make Ireland his home - finding an affinity in spirit and outlook with the people of the Gaeltacht in County Donegal.

And in finding a home where he feels a deep connection with spirit and energy forces, he also connected deeply with the history of Ireland, the famine and the shared experiences of the Irish and Choctaw people.

Along with his friend Máire Nic Fhearraigh, he was instrumental in organising Derry’s first Famine Walk last month - a commemoration of the suffering people in this city endured during the famine years.

He feels passionately that the famine should be remembered correctly. “What we can’t do is accept the Famine as part of Irish heritage - just something that happened. It was something which was put upon the people of Ireland. A holocaust cannot be part of our heritage. It is something which must be remembered with the respect it deserves - those who died deserve to be remembered correctly.”

Until relatively recently many Irish people believed the Famine came about due to the failure of the potato crop to grow, and that the Irish people had been overly reliant on it. It has shocked many to learn that Ireland had enough food to have survived the Famine, but much of this was exported outside of the country.

The result was that Ireland lost more than a million of her own people - through death or emigration.

“There is education needed,” Waylon said. “We cannot allow people to deny that what happened in Ireland was a holocaust.”

It is an issue that Waylon feels strongly about as the Choctaw people had endured their own struggles some 16 years before the famine when, forced to leave their ancestral home in Mississipi to trek the ‘Trail of Tears’ to Oklahoma, many perished due to harsh conditions.

So becoming involved in the Famine Walks in Ireland was, perhaps, a natural progression for him once he found himself settled in Donegal.

And having a walk in Derry - where Waylon had spent time in 1995 at the invitation of Don Mullan - seemed a strong fit.

“I do love Derry and have found memories of Derry,” he said. “I worked here as an artist for a time and spent a lot of time in and round the city. When we were working on the famine walks for this year, I suggested to Máire that we come to Derry. She brought that added energy to the project and when we approached people we found we got a very positive response.”

During the planning Waylon and Máire caught the bus to Derry and walked from the Guildhall to old Derry workhouse, via the Peace Bridge and Ebrington.

There he spoke to local people about the history of the workhouse, of the 13 steps to the admitting officer’s study, where those arriving to seek refuge would declare themselves poor.

He also learned how the famine grave on the site was disinterred to allow for the building of flats.

It was an experience that he found unsettling in many ways. “There was a great feeling of restlessness there - of spirits who were unsettled and angry,” he said.

“I felt that healing was needed - and that perhaps we could start that process. When Máire climbed those 13 steps and laid a bouquet, I felt that perhaps we had started that healing process.”

When not looking at the joint history of his people and ours, Waylon works as an artist, author and advocate for those still in need today.

Waylon’s art represents a perfect balance between his Choctaw routes and his new found home in Ireland. The two cultures, he believes, are very similar in nature - and in particular he finds an affinity between the Gaelic speaking Irish and his people.

His home in Cashelnagor is a place he says where there is a “unique twining of energy and a strong sense of spirit” - this, he says, has influenced his more recent works.

“I recently took part in an art show as part of the Mary From Dungloe Festival. Most of the paintings displayed were of Donegal landscapes and sea scapes but I still work around the Indian culture,” he said.

Recently commissioned to complete a painting for Donegal County Council, he painted ‘Clann Spirits’. “I think there was resonance from where I was living in what I painted. The water colours seemed more vibrant. There is a great energy in the painting.”

The meeting of the two cultures has, it seems, been a happy accident for Waylon but it is one he feels was perhaps inevitable. “Máire told me a great Irish saying ‘Athníonn cioróg, cioróg eile” - one bug recognises another.”