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Essie’s Story


Today is the birthday of Esther Burnett Horne, who was featured in “Essie’s Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher.” Essie was born in 1909, and the book, which she co-authored with Sally McBeth, was published in 1998, a year before Essie died.

Essie was born to a Scotch-Irishman and a Shoshone woman. Essie’s early childhood in Idaho was a happy one, but her father died of a brain tumor when she was 13. Essie’s mother was left with four pre-teens, a toddler and a baby on the way. Her mother moved the family back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and got a job, but the stress was too much. She allowed her three oldest children to be sent to a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Kansas where fourteen year-old Essie and her siblings joined children from all over the country. The students were deliberately mixed with students from other tribes.

In the book, she says “…one of the things that the boarding school fostered was an understanding of different tribes. We were not allowed to speak our own languages or dance our own dances, but by our being thrown together we associated with one another … We discussed our beliefs, our homes, our food, our arts and crafts … our lives! I think of the boarding school as a kind of cultural and historical feast. I was tremendously enriched by my association with people from other tribes.”

“The schools were trying to take the Indianness out of us,” she continued, “but they never succeeded, at least not completely. The boarding school … unwittingly created a resistance to assimilation … it strengthened our resolve to retain our identity as American Indians and take our place in today’s world.”

During her seven years at Haskell, two Native American teachers had a profound impact on Essie. As recounted in the book, “They taught non-Indian subject matter but had a very strong respect for Indian culture, and they were clever enough to integrate it into the curriculum… They pointed out biases in what we read and taught us how to disagree without being disagreeable. They taught us how to defend ourselves, as Indian people, without getting angry or defensive.”

Essie, herself, became a teacher in 1929. That same year, she married Bob Horne, her high school sweetheart. He was working at the Wahpeton Indian School, and the school’s superintendent offered Essie a job. She taught there for 35 years. One of her many accomplishments, was organizing the first All-Indian Girl Scout Troop in the United States.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm