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William H. Mckinney, A. B., A. M., B. D. This highly educated minister and farmer of Smithville is a fullblood Choctaw Indian, and has tor thirty years been one of the strongest influences for the enlightenment, moral, social and industrial progress among the old Indian tribes of Oklahoma.
He is a conspicuous exception and thereby demonstrates the fallacy of a belief long held that no fullblood Indian ever could attain a standard of educational progress equal to that of his white brother. As may be well understood, this in itself constitutes a highly valuable service, and has been much appreciated by his own tribe of the Choctaws. Rev. Mr. McKinney has all the personal characteristics of his tribe, yet he holds three college degrees and is master of seven languages besides his own vernacular. The high ideals of intellectual attainment implanted have been preserved, although it is thirty years since he stepped from the door of Yale. Here too he has broken a rule long believed to have no exceptions that an Indian eventually loses his veneer of culture and returns to the habits and customs of his forefathers. William McKinney in these respects is one of the most remarkable old men of the Southwestern tribes.
Before him there were modest governors and modest chiefs in the McKinney family. Probably not one of them ever had a political ambition that was not fundamentally philanthropic. The parents of Mr. McKinney never were known by any other than their Indian names, though these names translated into English mean William and Mary. Both his father and his brother Governor Thompson McKinney were captains in the Confederate army. Metinnubbee, his father, who once was chief of the Apuckshonnubbee District, which embraced seven counties of the Choctaw Nation, was inspired to the belief that his principal duty was to make better citizens of his people. Once or twice each year he visited each county and addressed the people on the subjects of right living, obedience to the law, development of industries, respect for their neighbors, and the tenets of Christianity. Ohoyoema, the mother of William McKinney, shared in the ambitious designs and practices of her husband. Fullblood though she was, she foresaw the possibilities for service in the career of her son after the tribal days had passed and the reign of white man should be over the land once promised to the Indians as long as waters run and grass grows.
Ohoyoema was on her last bed of illness. William had spent three years in Spencer Academy, near Doaksville, and had come home. His father was dead and his mother lived alone in their little cabin near Smithville in a lovely and historic spot of the Kiamichi mountains. William was sixteen years old, and the joy of his mother’s declining years. “My son,” she said to him, “you must get an education. Without it you cannot accomplish what you should among our people. It was your father’s ambition that you should be a great and a good man.” William recalled the oft repeated assertion that an Indian was incapable of acquiring a high education, he was at the point of resolving to combat such belief. The suffering his mother’s face disclosed forced back the resolution. “ Don’t mind me my son,” she continued. “Go today. Go to college and the Lord will make you what your father desired. I shall not be here long. Perhaps when you kiss me goodby it will be the last goodbye. But I shall not grieve for I know you are becoming great and good.” William McKinney’s kiss was the last his mother felt. She had passed beyond before he came back.
He went to Salem, Virginia, and entered Roanoke College. Five years later in 1883 he received his degree Bachelor of Arts and was fourth honor student in a class of twenty-two, being the first fullblood Indian ever to complete the course in that school and probably in any other American school down to that time. Five years later he returned to Salem and received his Master of Arts degree. At the tune his particular friend, N. B. Ainsworth, entered the University of Virginia to study law, W. H. McKinney began to read law books, in connection with his regular college work, expecting to enter the same university to take a regular course in law, but, when he finished his course at Roanoke College, he spent several days debating over the question as to which profession he must take to do the greatest good to his own people and finally decided to go to the theological school. With the assistance of Doctor Dreher, the president of Roanoke College, he went to New Haven, Connecticut, and entered Yale Divinity School finishing his course in 1886 with the degree Bachelor of Divinity. The following year he entered the ministry of the Presbyterian Church as a missionary among his people. He was a master of seven languages and no student in his divinity class was his peer in Greek and Latin. While he was a student in Spencer Academy he was under the tuition of J. C. Colton and Dr. J. J. Read, both of whom were among the early missionaries and teachers of the Choctaw Nation. He was a classmate of Dr. E. N. Wright, who in recent years has been one of the chief advisors of the Choctaws, and of Dr. Frank Wright, who has in recent years been a traveling evangelist in the Presbyterian Church. Both these men are sons of the Rev. Dr. Allen Wright. In accordance with the Choctaw regulations governing education which required that some members of the faculties of the academies should teach Latin and Greek, Mr. McKinney during the early years of his ministry served as a member of the board of examiners appointed by the governor, and in that position passed upon the Latin, Greek and history qualifications of applicants for teachers’ certificates.
“It was the admonition and prayer of my mother that made me accomplish what I did,” says Mr. McKinney. “I was determined when I went to Roanoke to fight my Indian blood to the last ditch if it interfered with my progress. My mother died in a few months, but her prayer always was with me. I never came back to the Indian country during those five years. On the contrary I employed a private tutor at the end of each term and spent each summer studying the course that came the succeeding year. I made good grades. I avoided bad company. I remained without college fraternities and gave society the least attention possible.”
The tenacity of purpose of Mr. McKinney was put to test once during his five years at Roanoke, and by no less a person than Dr. Allen Wright, the man who suggested the name of Oklahoma for the territory and who, as a pioneer missionary, accomplished more than any other Indian for the welfare of his people. Doctor Wright visited Roanoke. “William,” he said, the day before his departure for Indian Territory, “I’m going home tomorrow and if you want to go I’ve got $65 for you as expense money.” “I don’t want to go,” replied McKinney. “I came here to stay until I finish and I’m going to stay.” Next day Doctor Wright renewed the suggestion. “You may give me the $65 if you like,” said the young student, “and I’ll use it in paying expenses here. I’m not going home.” “ You’ve got the right stuff in you,” laughed Doctor Wright. “I didn’t want you to go home. I was only giving you a test, and you’ve stood it. Take the money and remain here.”
During his early years as a minister Rev. Mr. McKinney covered three counties of the Choctaw Nation. Later he had as charges Atoka, Coalgate, Mahew, Durant, Caddo, Antlers, Stringtown and Boggy Depot. Still later the scope of his work was enlarged to cover the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. The Civil war had practically demoralized the organization accomplished by the missionaries before the war, and his duties were largely reconstructive and reorganizing. There were few church edifices; nearly all meetings were held under brush arbors or trees. The meeting period was supposed to begin at 7:30 p. m. on Friday and last until Sunday evening, but the Indians were slow in recovering from laxity of attendance entailed by the war. “To overcome this,” says Mr. McKinney, “I had to set an example. For several months when I reached an appointment at a stated time on Friday evening I found no one there on the camp ground. I staked my horse and lay on the grass all night without supper. I went without breakfast or dinner on Saturday and on Saturday afternoon the Indians slowly gathered. When I told them of my long and lonesome fast and my prayers they were sorry and promised thereafter to come to service on Friday evening. I never had to repeat this at any appointment. For thirty years our Christian work made good progress. Our two-day meetings in late years have been interfered with by the Indians adopting the customs of the white people. For instance, they remain away from church on Saturday and go to town or attend baseball games. Most of our services now are limited to those of the Sabbath, although occasionally we have meetings that last several days and Indians come long distances and live in camp houses during the time. I have only two appointments now, one at Eagletown and one at Goodwater.”
Not only in the religious field has Mr. McKinney accomplished a great work. For twenty years he has been official interpreter for the Choctaw Legislature, serving under the administrations of Governors Thompson McKinney, who was his brother, Benjamin F. Smallwood, Wilson N. Jones, Jefferson Gardner, Green McCurtain and Gilbert Dukes. Bills were written in English and one of his duties was to interpret them for fullblood members of the Legislature who could not speak English. Another of his duties was to interpret speeches made in the Legislature, English to Choctaw and Choctaw to English.
By the request of many of his own people he appeared before Judge Jefferson Gardner, Supreme Judge of the Supreme Court of the Choctaw Nation, and applied for the license to practice law in the courts of the Choctaw Nation and was admitted in 1892; and afterward he was admitted to the bar in the United States Court in the Central District of the Indian Territory in 1906; and in 1908 he was admitted to the bar of McCurtain County of the State of Oklahoma.
Another characteristic about him is that he has always had perfect confidence of the full blood of his own people; this state of things was fully proved when the Government was enrolling the new-born children of “ Snake Indians.” These Indians were bitterly opposed to take their allotments of land and refused to have anything to do with the requirement of the Government, and commissioner to the five civilized tribes and its field clerks utterly failed to enroll the new-horn children of these “ Snake Indians.” W. H. McKinney was appointed as special officer to go among these Indians, and he went and enrolled all delinquent children and now these “Snake Indians” know that they have a friend on whom they can depend, and who has all the time advised them as though they were his own children.
His character and his training made him more than a mere servant of the Legislature. He felt it his duty to criticize proposed legislation if he believed it would be inimical to the best interests of the Choctaw people and never hesitated to advise fullblood members of his opinion. His disinterestedness and sincerity thus gave him a great influence. Such activity caused him more than once to be hailed before the powers and reprimanded. He was threatened with discharge, but he always answered that the performance of a duty he believed he owed his people was more sacred than a political appointment. It was his activity that defeated the approval by the Department of the Interior of a bill passed by the Choctaw Legislature creating a commission of three, of which the governor was to be ex-official member, to superintend the payment of nearly $100,000,000 to the Choctaws. This amount was the estimated value of all tribal property that was to be sold by the commission. The commission, under the bill, was to receive 10 per cent of all money distributed, or nearly $10,000,000. Mr. McKinney discovered evidences of bribery, and did all in his power to forestall the passage of the bill, and failing in this he wrote letters to the Indian agent at Muskogee and the secretary of the interior that caused the bill never to leave the Muskogee office on its way to Washington.