Esther “Essie” Burnett Horne
Essie Burnett was born to reservation royalty. Her father was Fincelious Burnett II, the son of Finn Burnett, the Agriculture agent who came to the reservation in the early days to teach the Shoshone how to farm, and her mother was Mildred Large, the granddaughter of Bazil who was the nephew and adopted son of Sacagawea, famous interpreter and peacemaker of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
When Fincelious and Mildred fell in love, neither side of the family was accepting of a mixed marriage, so the couple moved to Idaho to begin their married life. They became the parents of 5 children. Essie was the eldest. Essie’s early childhood was secure and happy. Her father made sure the children were proud of both their White heritage and their Shoshone heritage. Essie was always proud of being the great-great granddaughter of Sacagawea, although she was quick to affirm that this relationship “is by no means the most important theme of my life.”
Tragedy hit the young family when Fincelious developed a brain tumor while they were living in Eden, Idaho. He died in 1922, and the family was thrown into turmoil. Essie was only 13 and the youngest child, Finn, was born after his father died.
The family returned to the reservation before settling in Green River where Mildred secured work in a Chinese Restaurant. The family struggled financially, and it was decided the three oldest children would go to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. One of the purposes of the boarding schools was to assimilate children into the White culture, and there are many stories of brutality and cruelty towards boarding school children, but surprisingly Essie had a positive experience at Haskell.
After adjusting to the challenges of boarding school Essie thrived. She was a good student and a voracious reader. By happy chance she had two Native American teachers Ella Deloria, a Standing Rock Sioux with a degree from Columbia and Ruth Muskrat Bronson, a Cherokee who held an English degree from Mount Holyoke. These two women taught a regular curriculum but most importantly included Native American values that inspired students to be proud of their heritage. These women encouraged Essie to become a teacher and became her role models.
One of the unintended side effects of the government boarding schools was to create a pan-Indian culture where children from many tribes were thrown together in the boarding schools, and thereby learning about other Native Cultures and traditions. Essie met her future husband, Robert Horne while they were at Haskell. Robert Horne was a member of the Hupa tribe, a native people in California; famous for their basket weaving.
While visiting her mother in the summer of 1928, Essie found that because her mother was working to support the children, the two youngest children had little supervision. She also got the disturbing news that her sister, June had disappeared. She later learned June had been kidnapped, taken to New Mexico and married by proxy to a man she did not know. At age 13 June was returned to Rock Springs pregnant. June lived with her mother-in-law who helped with the new baby. So, Essie got permission to take Helen and Finn ages 7 and 5 back to Haskell. In the Fall Essie returned to Haskell with her two young siblings. Haskell was not equipped to educate children as young as Finn and Helen, but the children lived in the girls’ dorm and the matron and older students doted on the children. They found the security and stability that they did not have at home.
Essie continued her Junior College degree at Haskell and was offered a teaching position at Eufaula school, a boarding school for Creek girls in Oklahoma. Essie was very young and the school administrators did not expect her to be successful, but Essie was determined to do her best, and she excelled. Essie taught at several boarding schools in her impressive career, but she spent most of her career at Wahpeton Indian School in North Dakota. In addition to her teaching duties at Wahpeton Essie sponsored a Native American Girl Scout troop and started an Indian Club where she taught native crafts and dances and native customs. When her daughters were born Essie was able to keep working, which was unusual for mothers of young children at that time.
The 150th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition was in 1955 and as a descendent of Sacagawea Essie was asked to accompany an expedition that followed the original route of Lewis and Clark. The route was done in vehicles but followed as close as possible to the original route. Essie wore a buckskin dress during the expedition and was an ambassador for Native Americans along the journey. She recited the story of Sacagwea and her family history numerous times along the journey, but many historians doubted her story that her great-great- grandmother was Sacagawea. Essie respectfully listened to their doubts but she knew in her heart her family history. As a parting gift Essie was given a duplicate of the Jefferson metal Sacagawea had received in appreciation of her help with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It became one of her most prized possessions.
In 1959 Essie was invited to a dedication of a statue of Sacagawea into The Native American Hall of Fame in Anadarko, Oklahoma. After Sacagawea left Charbonneau she wandered into Indian Territory and married a Comanche named Jerk Meat and had several children with him. The language and customs of the Comanche and the Shoshone are very similar. Essie wanted to visit her lost cousins, and with the help of another Haskell graduate who was a Comanche Essie found some of her cousins and exchanged stories of Sacagawea. The stories from both family traditions were similar. Essie’s grandfather Burnett remembered Sacagawea telling of children she left in Oklahoma among the Comanche.
Essie and her husband retired in the 1960s. Essie missed teaching her Native American students, but she stayed active and traveled to Europe as a tourism ambassador and met many mayors and heads of state. She shared her culture with many Europeans.
In 1979 Blanche Schroer, a self-styled historian wrote an article that ran in Wyoming Magazine (reprinted in the Lander Journal) denying Sacagawea ever came to the Wind River Reservation. To refute this Essie came back to the reservation and organized her papers that supported her family history. She had interviews from her grandfather, Finn Burnett and Rev. John Roberts which strongly supported her belief that she was a descendant of Sacagawea. Both Finn Burnett and John Roberts had known Sacagawea well when she lived on the reservation.
When Essie was teaching in the boarding schools she incorporated Native American values in the classroom, scouting, sports and The Indian Club. The five values she focused on were bravery, generosity and sharing, respect for elders, individual freedom and respect for the environment. Essie became the “grandma” to scores of students from many tribes as she spent her life teaching Native American values to young people.
Next up for the Fremont County Museum
October 13 & 14, 6-9pm at the Pioneer Museum in Lander, “Halloween Night at the Museum” Baily Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
October 14, 5-8pm at the Riverton Museum, “Pumpkin Trail”
October 15, 5-7:30 at the Riverton Museum, “Riverton Haunted Downtown Adventure Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series
December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition
Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.
The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum. The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.
Photo: Arapaho girls circa 1916