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Essie is Honored

3/3/2005:

Four years ago today, Esther Burnett Horne was inducted into the Northwest Minnesota Women’s Hall of Fame during Bemidji State University’s observance of Women’s History Month. The theme was “Uppity Women of Courage and Vision,” and Essie was honored for her advocacy of the American Indian.

Essie’s impact on northwestern Minnesota took place after she retired in 1965 and moved to Nay-tah-waush on the White Earth Reservation. She had been a popular and dynamic educator for 30 years by that point – mostly at the Wahpeton Indian School – but she was far from finished with her quest. For the next 25 years, she remained committed to American Indian children as advisor, mentor, teacher and cultural bridge-builder for regional schools, churches and tribal organizations.

Born in 1909, Essie was a member of the Wind River Shoshone tribe through her mother’s side of the family. Essie came of age during an era when Native American children were routinely forced to attend distant boarding schools to rid them of their “Indianess,” but Essie was luckily spared this indignity during her early years.

Essie remembered her childhood in Idaho as happy and idyllic. In 1918, her Scottish-Irish father, Finn, successfully nursed his wife and four children through the flu pandemic. In her book, “Essie’s Story,” she said, “The last thing I remember before going into a coma was that my new socks were hanging over the foot of my bed. When I woke up, they were gone. I thought I had been asleep for a short time, and I couldn’t imagine who had taken my socks. Mother said, ‘You’ve been asleep for several days, and I took your socks down to wash them.’”

The family recovered, the good life continued, and another child was born. Then one day, Essie’s father had a seizure while operating a cream separator. They learned he had a brain tumor, and he became increasingly ill. “We had depleted our stored foods, eaten our chickens, and consumed nearly all of our canned goods,” Essie said of this time period. “We experienced the indignity of opening up the door and finding boxes and baskets of food on the steps. I must have been about twelve or thirteen years old at the time, and I felt so helpless...”

A sixth child was born shortly after Finn died, and soon the family was falling apart. Mildred had a bit of life insurance money, and Finn’s brother invested it in the stock market for her. It was all lost in the Teapot Dome scandal, and Mildred had to move her family to Wyoming, near the Wind River Reservation, where they stayed with relatives. Mildred’s grief, along with the burden of supporting six children, was too much for her, and the soon family fell into poverty and neglect.

In 1924, the Wind River Indian Agency enrolled Essie, now 14, and two of her siblings in Haskell Institute, a boarding school in Kansas. While Essie was never okay with the circumstances that led her to Haskell, she later insisted that, for her, it was a good experience on several levels. Two of her teachers – Ella Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux member and Columbia graduate, and Ruth Muskrat Bronson, a Cherokee and graduate of Mount Holyoke, encouraged their students to be proud of their Native heritage, and their positive example led Essie to become a teacher.

At the time of her death in 1999, Essie Horne had received many honors, including designation as Master Teacher for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Distinguished Service Award from the Department of the Interior, and Outstanding American Indian Elder award from the Minnesota Indian Education Association.

(Source: Essie’s Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher, by Esther Burnett Horne and Sally McBeth; 1998)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm