WAYLON Gary White Deer will always be welcome in Ireland,” wrote the late Martin McGuinness in his introduction to the 2012 book Touched By Thunder, a memoir by the artist from the Choctaw nation tribe, who now calls Ireland home.
“I live in the Donegal Gaeltacht, a place where the native community speak a language among themselves,” says White Deer.
He is known as Gary by most of the Irish friends he has made he since he was first invited to visit in 1995, mainly as a result of Irish Choctaw Famine commemorations and links. He settled here permanently in 2012.
White Deer participated in the Famine Commemorations in Skibbereen in 2009, led several Afri Famine walks in Mayo, and met Damien Dempsey for the first time filming for RTÉ’s Nationwide as Damien was singing ‘Choctaw Nation’.
They have since become firm friends.
He also made an appearance in an episode of Fair City in 2013, performed Choctaw songs at the Electric picnic, and was once asked to ride a horse down Grafton Street to advertise a brand of fast food — an offer which he declined!
In his former life in Ada Oklahoma, White Deer and his now ex-wife Sarah raised seven children supported almost entirely on earnings from his painting.
He inherited this gift from his father Gilbert, nicknamed ‘Chief’, who used to wake from his dreams and go straight to the kitchen table to paint what he saw.
Chief was influenced by his friend Apache artist Alan Houser, and used a traditional style known as ‘flatwork’.
The Choctaw traditionally believe that we dwell in tandem with the spirit world who will inspire “if you know how to listen”.
White Deer attended the Institute of American Indian Arts studying under Fritz Scholder, who sought to deconstruct the mythos of the ‘American Indian’ depicting them with beer cans and American flags.
After his children grew up, White Deer says he followed a sense of inner ‘go with the flow’ that eventually found him staying permanently in Ireland.
He travels back and forth to visit his family and see his grandchildren. He paints constantly, often with an eclectic variety of music playing in the background.
“As well as an inner sense of my own culture it’s the wind, the sea and the landscape of this part of Donegal which inspires my painting now. Recently waves have started to appear in my work,” he says.
“Growing up in Oklahoma, I remember white kids pinched you if you were not wearing green on St Patrick’s Day. I learned of the 1847 Choctaw donation to Famine Ireland when I was in Indian boarding school,” he says, referring to when a collection among impoverished Choctaws raised the then substantial sum of $170 for famine-relief in Ireland.
“With stories there are two kinds that matter, those we feel, and those we know because they happened to us. We carry both kinds beneath our skin, like hidden tattoos. My stories happened to me so I know them pretty well,” reflects White Deer
‘Those songs and stories I thought I was meant to feel or know I tried to remember, or else they made places within me. In Indian country we don’t chase after stories or songs. They come around to where we are. Just like an arrow shot through time which I depict in one of my paintings.’
His ethnicity has often been a source of confusion for Irish people but he takes it all in his stride.
‘Last year an older gentleman asked me how long it took me to fly to India, and I told him I think you have the wrong Indian. I’ve been mistaken for John Rocha twice, and ended up saying I was Bob Rocha, John Rocha’s American cousin for a bit of craic, but I’m not American either. I’m Choctaw,” he says.
His grandmother told him that his last name came from a man called ‘Issi Tohbi’ which means White Deer in his native tongue.
“It was the only name he had. In those days they had only one name, not like today,” he says.
‘There are at least three hundred tribal nations in the place they now call America, with different languages and cultures. I like the phrase ‘First Nations’ rather than ‘ Native Americans’. Perhaps what we witnessed in the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff were re -emerging First Nations Sovereignties.’ he continued.
White Deer has received painting commissions from the Irish State, and Donegal County Council and has also painted a mural on the walls of Derry.
“While working on the mural in Derry, the nationalism there influenced my own sense of tribal sovereignty, just as it does today.
"Among other things my paintings try and show how alive with spirit our tribal ways are, and to help move them forward into other generations.
"The beautiful ancient culture of Ireland that was once suppressed should also be cherished,” he says.