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White Deer goes full circle for Choctaw film

Brian Fitzpatrick - Irish Emigrant

 Gary White Deer of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma made his first connections with Ireland in 1994, meeting an Irish group who had traveled to Mississippi to retrace the historic Trail of Tears and offer up a donation of $20,000 to his tribe.

Now, some 17 years and 17 trips to Ireland later, White Deer (59), who advocates a separate Choctaw Indian state, has become a man of many guises: highly sought-after artist, tribal historian, band member, peace activist and more.

Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Choctaw were forced in 1831 to leave their homeland in Mississippi, marching 600 miles to “Indian Territory” in eastern Oklahoma along what became known as the Trail of Tears.

Remarkably, 16 years later and with the wounds from this ethnic cleansing still fresh, the Choctaw gathered $170 – about $8,000 in today's money - and sent it to Ireland in 1847, one of the worst years of the Irish Famine, which had begun in 1845.

In 1996 Derry human rights activist Don Mullan invited White Deer to join him on a 12-mile Famine walk in Co. Mayo which annually mirrors a foot-trek made by dying Irish as they went to beg the British to ease their suffering. The occasion was used to commemorate the incredible Choctaw donation, and since then White Deer has done perhaps more than any other to cement the firm bond between the two peoples.

The author of the forthcoming book, Chahta Bilia Hoke: an Overview of Choctaw History, he has appeared in a number of documentaries on RTÉ, BBC, PBS and National Geographic. Currently Professor of Choctaw Studies at Bacone College, Muskogee, Oklahoma, he has seen his art displayed at the American Embassy in Ireland, the Southern Plains Museum, Oklahoma and the Irish Arts Center, New York, and has lectured at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Oklahoma and Hunter College, New York City.


Now, White Deer has been inspired to make a film which will finally link Ireland and the Choctaw via perhaps their greatest common bond: the struggle for identity. Asked to paint a mural in Derry in 1997, he was caught up in a sectarian riot in the Creggan area, and something inside him clicked.

“It was during the Siege of Derry parade,” he told The Irish Emigrant on the phone from Dublin last week. “I heard music and thought ‘this sounds great’, but by the time I got there we were hemmed in on all sides. We had the RUC lined up against us on one side and rocks and glass bottles flying over a wall behind us. I think the weapons we had included an empty plastic bottle which made it about three feet, and an umbrella a woman threw at a Saracen. It opened up in mid-air and landed on the hood, it was like Mary Poppins!” he laughed.

But despite the humor, the incident was a genuinely nasty one, and a long plane trip home got White Deer thinking of how the grief endured by nationalists in Northern Ireland compared with the plight of the Choctaw, in terms of their struggle for sovereignty against brute force and occupation.

“It was seminal moment for me,” he said. “It really made me think. Like the Irish who had fought for their identity for 800 years, by way of their language, customs and so on. They never considered themselves English or British, and likewise my grandparents never considered themselves American. I too now consider myself Choctaw alone. I have nothing against the US, and this isn’t political, but I feel like a Choctaw, not an American.

“It comes back to what Ben Franklin said, how ‘those who would trade freedom for security deserve neither’,” he said. “The film will investigate this tug of war between the two, and we’ll also look at how the various ancient tribal prophecies might influence our thinking on the issues.”


The March of the Choctaw, a 90-minute documentary for festival, cinema, digital download and DVD release slated for October/November 2012, will be overseen by White Deer’s good friend, Dubliner Peter McCarthy, whose previous production Fight-or-Flight, based on one man’s journey into Thailand’s Muay Thai boxing netherworld, was honored at both the Long Island and Hamburg festivals, and broadcast on US and European cable TV.

The film, for which preliminary footage has already been shot in New York and Ireland, will follow Gary as he travels in an old-fashioned yellow school bus across the tribal trails of the US and later down as far as Guatemala, meeting with First Nation chiefs, clan mothers, tribal leaders, elders and traditional faith keepers, asking them tough questions about independence and community sovereignty, the economic crisis, the environment, and who exactly they are.

The crew will set off in January or February 2012 to meet with the Hopi, Iroquois, Kiowa, Lakota, Maya and other tribes. As well as searching out the hard facts on the ground, they will also explore how the aforementioned tribal prophecies relate to these nightmarish modern economic and climatic times, and what signs can be read from the predictions. As the film is completely self-funded, McCarthy and White Deer are currently seeking donors, with costs expected to be considerable.

Describing being sent a script for another Indian project and stumbling across Gary’s work for Irish human rights NGO Action from Ireland (Afri) during his research, director McCarthy told The Irish Emigrant that the more he saw of White Deer, the more he liked.

“I hadn’t heard about the Choctaw donation but began researching the background as the script needed development,” he said.

“Then I saw Gary's picture in a Mayo newspaper leading the Afri Famine walks. I got chatting with him, and when Afri invited him over to Ireland about two years ago we worked on developing that project. The following year, when I helped organize famine commemoration events in the US, we were staying at a hotel in Boston and Gary told me about his time in Derry and the impact that had on his life. It was then that he began talking about sovereignty for the Choctaw tribe. I knew the story had to be told.”


He feels White Deer’s connections to Ireland not only link the two peoples, but also serve a greater purpose. For example Joe Murray of Afri took Gary to Rossport, Co. Mayo in 2005, and he has maintained close links to the locality since.

”Along with Afri and Don Mullan, Gary has helped maintain the bond between the Choctaw and the Irish like no other. He has worked for Concern on an African project and also helped out with the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign. He has met with Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and has become friends with presidential hopeful Martin McGuinness. I personally think he should be offered Irish citizenship.”

What does McCarthy see as the project’s overall aim?

”I'd like to highlight where the tribes are today, Gary’s vision, and also the connection between the Irish and the Choctaw, which helps people to see the importance of giving. The story of the Choctaw donation to the Irish is part of the New York state elementary curriculum which was introduced a number of years back. That to me is what it’s all about.”

Of his time in Mayo, White Deer said he deeply admired the locals’ tenacity as Shell, backed by successive Irish governments, look to exploit the Corrib Gas Field by pumping unrefined gas inland through an inhabited area to a refinery. On seeing what was going on, he felt he had to do something.

“The tribal nations can draw huge parallels from communities like Rossport, and the uneven hand of the state,” Gary said of the battle. “Back then, the issue had nowhere near the exposure it has nowadays, thanks to things like the film The Pipe.”

Referring to the Irish media’s portrayal of the protestors as hippies, he said he was amazed by the strength of the locals he met, such as Rossport hunger striker Maura Harrington, whom he recalls smoking with outside the parish hall.

“Nobody had dreadlocks, they were just ordinary people. I promised I’d go back to the Choctaw board of trustees to see what we could do, and thankfully in 2007 I was able to return with around 6,000 euro for their cause, which almost works out at the same amount as the 1847 donation.”

“That brought it all full circle,” he concluded, as he sets off to start another circle linking Ireland and the First Nations this winter.


Posted Date: 
18 October 2011