Thomas McKinney's life is steeped in many varieties of Native tradition and lore.

He learned it as a child hearing stories from his grandmother, a Seneca Indian. He and his family danced at powwows around western Pennsylvania. He also became a Boy Scouts of America Eagle Scout.

At age 16, the National Council of Boy Scouts sent him to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to help establish Explorer posts.

He recalled dancing at a powwow north of Pittsburgh when a Bacone College trustee asked if he ever considered attending college.

"Coming to Oklahoma was one of the things I never thought I'd be able to do," McKinney said. "I came out of five kids and my dad worked in the steel mills of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. It was next to impossible to think I'd be able to go to college."

At Bacone, he studied Native art under such greats as Dick West, Terry Saul and Solomon McCombs. He later studied nursing at Bacone during a time when few men ventured into the field.

He said nursing instructor Modesta Davis "was hard on all us guys." 

“She told us on the very first day of school we were invading a woman's profession and that she would do everything in her power to get rid of all us boys,” he said.

In 1979, McKinney began a 28-year career with the Muskogee Fire Department. He recalled helping to put the Christmas Eve 1991 fire at St. Paul United Methodist Church. 

"Sat on corner of 30th and Okmulgee, pumped water into aerial ladder to shoot it down into the building," he said. 

He also worked with Muskogee County Emergency Medical Service in the early 2000s.

But, McKinney keeps his Native traditions. He dances at powwows with his wife, children and grandchildren.

Sharing knowledge

with another tribe

Thomas McKinney recalled growing up in Seneca culture.

He said the Native culture is not as strong in Pennsylvania as it is in Oklahoma,

"But we had powwows all over the place," he said. "My grandmother was Seneca and she told me all kinds of stories of creation and things like that."

McKinney started doing Native dancing with his family when he was 9. He said his mother, brother, sister and brother-in-law danced for a while, but didn't keep up with it.

McKinney said the Cherokee and Seneca cultures are similar. 

"We have many of the same songs, dances," he said. "The language and the dress is very similar."

McKinney encountered a different Native culture as a teen. Betty Hulk, a representative from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation had come to Pennsylvania for a Boy Scout celebration of Native culture.

"When the National Council of Boys Scouts found out I actually made contact with someone who lived on the Rosebud reservation, they asked if I would be interested in starting an Explorer post," McKinney said, adding that he helped start Explorer posts, Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs at surrounding reservations. 

"It was while I was on the reservation was when Betty and Francis Hulk accepted me as part of their family."

Learning art

from the best

Thomas McKinney said Bacone's Native influence drew him to Oklahoma.

"I was told your had to be at least a fourth blood Indian to attend Bacone," he said. Once I got here, I was told that had not been in effect for a long time.

One of the first people McKinney recalled meeting was the great-grandson of the great Lakota Chief Red Cloud. 

McKinney said studying under Dick West and others was like "going back 100 years and learning how to function in an older, more simple background."

McKinney said West taught him to do the traditional, two-dimensional Native paintings, "and make them look real."

McKinney said West taught more than art. He said the artist gave him bustle feathers.

"Dick West taught me how to do sign language, The Lord's Prayer and also 23rd Psalm," he said. "After he left, I still remembered it. It was a means of communicating without having to learn about language differences. Sign language was a means of communication."

Other art teachers also challenged McKinney. Alice Spinks taught him beadwork skills. Vernon McNeil taught him silversmithing.  

"Ruthie Blalock was there and Gary Colbert," he said. "I got to meet a lot of the original instructors."

Powwows a chance

for family to dance 

Before the COVID-19 epidemic struck last spring, the McKinney family usually went to two or three powwows a year. 

“I had just completed my 10-year-old granddaughter's outfit, and she got to dance twice, when the COVID hit," he said, adding that they'd attend “any one that's available.”

McKinney said his wife, Carmen, does traditional dances in a Seminole dress.

His oldest son is a traditional dancer, while his youngest does fancy dancing. His daughter has danced fancy shawl and jingle dress, and now is traditional.

“I've always danced fancy, but I'm too old now,” McKinney said. “I've got a gut on me, and I'm 68 years old. I love to put on my feathers, but I'm just getting too old.”

He said he's working on his northern traditional dancing and straight dance.

He said the family is anxious to go to powwows again.

"It is keeping our tradition alive," he said. "So much of our tradition has been lost over the years." 

Q and A

HOW DID YOU COME TO BE AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE? 

"I came to Muskogee to attend Bacone College when I was 20 years old."

WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?

"The thing I like best about Muskogee is the small town attitude. I've personally known several people who hold high positions, like the mayors, chief of police, doctors, and others on a first-name basis. I came from a small town, and I like the small town attitude." 

WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE?

"If the city would treat the east side of town the way they treat the north and west side of the city. Every time the city gets a grant, it's for certain parts of the city. The east side of town needs improvements, but we rarely get any. Our streets are in need of repair, but it's always the north and west side that get everything."

WHAT PERSON IN MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE MOST?

"I admire the first responders the most. I started out one the police department, then I got into nursing school at Bacone. I got on the fire department, where I retired from, then joined Muskogee County EMS, where I stayed until I got injured and was forced to retire. So I worked at the hospital in the lab for about a year."

WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?

"When I got to meet all of the Blue Angels flight team. I made beaded bolo ties for the entire team. I was working at Bacone College at the time."

WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?

"I like to read, traditional Native American dancing, spend time with my family, and work on the house that my wife and I are renovating."

HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?

"We need more stores in Muskogee, a variety. We also need to work together as one community, not as two separate sides of town." 

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