Holts Summit woman offers Native American view of Thanksgiving

Every day is a day of thanksgiving for Dona McKinney.

She carries on the tradition of gratitude from her tribal ancestors.

“We were taught to be thankful for everything, even for the hard times,” McKinney said. “Even when it’s cold and nasty outside and you do not want to go to work; you give thanks for having a job to support your family.”

In the 21st century, many Americans can trace their heritage back to an indigenous tribe. But few live on reservations.

For many people like McKinney, they balance their beliefs with life in the modern world.

“To be Indian today is hard,” McKinney said. “It’s not because anyone makes it that way, necessarily.

“But today it is easier than 30 years ago. Society is more accepting of the differences of people.”

Instead of the moniker “melting pot,” McKinney — who lives in Holts Summit and works at Lincoln University — suggested the United States is a “salad bowl.”

In the melting pot scenario, each ingredient is blended into a larger whole and loses its distinct identity. As in a salad, a tomato contributes to the whole but retains its individuality, she noted.

“A lot of people know a lot of history about Indians,” McKinney said. “But it’s not always the most accurate history; they say history is written by the victors, who were often non-Indian writers. Though, the historical information today is better than when I was a kid.”

Centuries ago, each Native American tribe had a distinctly different culture.

“They didn’t all look alike, talk alike or believe the same things,” McKinney said. “And we don’t today. We’re not a homogenous group of people.”

Still, McKinney said, most Native American cultures share the idea of family-centric community, the value of all forms of life on the planet, and a deeply spiritual nature.

“We lived very green before that was the thing to be,” McKinney said. “We harvested only what we needed, and we used all we took.

“And the hunters would give thanks for their meat.”

On Thanksgiving Day, McKinney and her family and friends will gather together, eat heartily and share in a day of appreciation.

But that celebration will be similar to the pow wows that they hold regularly throughout the year to share their common heritage.

McKinney’s husband grew up on a reservation with the native language and traditional family setting. But because her father was in the military, her social experiences varied.

So it was McKinney’s grandmother who fulfilled her promise to ground McKinney in her ancestral culture.

From the end of the 19th century until the 1960s, most people with Native American ancestry who lived away from a reservation found it easier to blend with modern society.

In Missouri, laws even forbade people of Native American lineage from owning land. And some schools would discipline students if they spoke in their native tongue.

“They thought they would make Indian people fit into white society by changing them,” McKinney said.

Along with the civil rights movement, a resurgence of interest in their native culture developed among Indian descendants who lived off of reservations.

Native Americans who had been relocated to urban areas by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to find jobs, began opening Urban Indian Centers which have evolved into community and cultural centers, holding pow wows and participating in the larger community’s events.

“The civil rights movement empowered them to be themselves; they saw people proud of their heritage,” McKinney said. “(Before that,) they didn’t lose their culture.

“It was maintained and taught to children, but it was not a public display.”

An anthropologist in the late 1800s, after spending two years at a reservation, reported to Congress that the Omaha tribe eventually would lose its cultural identity, and recommended the tribal members be assimilated into white society.

“Today, they are still there; they’re still Omaha people,” McKinney said. “They still live their culture despite the fact it was predicted they were dying out.”

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