Dakota Datebook

Essie’s Story, Part 2

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Yesterday we began the story of Esther Burnett Horne, born in 1909 to a Scotch-Irishman, Finn Burnett, and a Shoshone woman, Millie Large. Essie’s early childhood in Idaho was a happy one, but when she was 13, her father died of a brain tumor. Essie’s mother was left with four pre-teens, a toddler and a baby on the way. Her savings were lost in the Teapot Dome scandal.

Millie moved her family back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and got a job as a hotel chambermaid. Sadly, the stress was too much for her. Two years after Finn’s death, she allowed her three oldest children to be sent to a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Kansas.

Essie’s boarding school experience was set in motion many years before she was born. Back in the 1870s, the U.S. government was intent on educating Indian children to be more like whites; some argued that day-schools on reservations were pointless. In 1886, the commissioner of Indian Affairs told Congress, “The greatest difficulty is experienced in freeing the children attending day schools from the language and habits of their untutored and oftentimes savage parents. When they return to their homes at night, and on Saturdays and Sundays, and are among their old surroundings, they relapse into their former moral and mental stupor.”

Fourteen year-old Essie arrived at the Haskell Indian Institute with her younger siblings, Bernice and Gordon. There, they joined children from all over the country. Students were separated from members of their own tribe and deliberately mixed in with students from other tribes. It was this practice, Essie later said, that caused the boarding school system to backfire.

“…one of the things that the boarding school (inadvertently) fostered,” she said, “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 and would talk to 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 may have contributed to the breakdown of the family and may have increased the rate of alcohol abuse…” she said, “but it also 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 particular teachers had a profound impact on Essie: Ella Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux, and Ruth Muskrat Bronson, a Cherokee. “They taught non-Indian subject matter but had a very strong respect for Indian culture,” Essie said, “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. This lesson has been invaluable to me…”

Essie, herself, became a teacher in 1929, first at the Eufaula Creek Girls Boarding School in Oklahoma. That same year, she married Bob Horne, her high school sweetheart from Haskell. He was working at the Wahpeton Indian School, and the school’s superintendent offered Essie a job as an elementary teacher. She taught there for 35 year; one of her many accomplishments, while in Wahpeton, was organizing the first All-Indian Girl Scout Troop in the United States.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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