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An Analysis of Esther Burnett in Essie's Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher


Education is the process through which knowledge is transferred from one person to another, one generation to another through training and teaching, oral literature, cultural processes and beliefs or through research. It is used to enlighten the society in the best ways to deal with situations, solve problems and create a new generation. Education is a process, which starts when one starts to have a perception on issues and starts to get to know him-/herself and the people around him/her. This is a very important step because the first part of education is getting to know yourself. Since the ancient times, education has been perceived differently. It has however been an integral part of human evolution. In the ancient times men passed information through drawings and paintings, discovered by archaeologists. These early paintings were a source of informal learning. Among the ancient Greeks, education was important, with philosophers and socialists being the most important people in the society. Since the days of the early scholars, education has evolved from informal and ritual activity to a complex and organized process. People are allowed to learn and integrate issues of people from other cultures, besides continuously learning new things about their own cultures. Today education is regarded as a very important social aspect, with some people tagging it ‘the key to success.’

The importance of education, therefore, cannot be taken as a simple matter. First, it opens up the people`s minds and creates a very big gap between educated people and those, who are not. This comes as a result from the fact that not educated people are unable to articulate issues, especially those that are not within the society they are brought up in. Education, in this case, helps the learner to articulate issues more effectively as well as ensuring that they do not fail with the already existing facts about culture in different societies.

Education is also important in transforming one`s way of thinking. It is the most important element in civilization as well as movement away from being an animal to being a rational creature. It enables one to think critically and rationally to allow coexistence between people. Further, it makes man a superior creature that can be able to organize people of different pedigrees into one society.

The ability to know oneself and what surrounds a person is the basic definition of freedom. This knowledge can only be obtained through education. Therefore, education is a symbol of freedom and some people believe that ‘only the educated are free.’ In this case, one can obtain independence because he/she can be able to autonomously decide what they want in their lives.

As education evolved with men, there were other issues that arose during the process. First, the gender role in education was highly pronounced in the process. Education did a lot to ensure that there was a balance between people, but the suppression of women was equally pronounced. There was little equality and some  channels were developed to be followed by women and other channels were developed to be followed by men. In this regard, the development of careers was equally differentiated as women followed certain careers and men followed others. It was therefore hard to keep the ground level for everyone. Men’s supremacy over women continued to increase, which, in turn, led to differentiation in careers and personalities in the long run.

Further, there were different ways, in which people from different races and societies perceived education. Some disregarded the past and only looked forward to learning new ideas, while others kept the bridge closed and used education to bridge the past and the future. At the same time, some regarded education as a state of class and the educated were regarded as the heroes and heroines of the society. Some looked at formal education as a way to captivate the minds of the learners and repelled education.

Essie’s definition and perception of education was somewhat different from what other people believed in. The students, she taught, loved her ways and their emic was oriented towards Essie’s beliefs regarding the definition of education. Emic refers to “an approach that deals with the insider’s view point” (Miller-Thayer, 2012). They loved her lessons, and being a Shoshone, she ensured that education was geared towards bridging the differences in culture between Indians and the white students she taught. She wanted her students to appreciate each other’s culture and learn to love and respect people, who came from other cultures.

We’d discuss the kind of dances or ceremonies that each tribe had and learn about each other’s traditions. We’d also compare notes as to how students would say common items such as sugar, salt, or bread in their language. We had a lot of respect for each other’s culture and talked a lot to each other about our customs and traditions. We, students, nurtured a sense of community among ourselves, and we learned so much from one another. Traditional values, such as sharing and cooperation, helped us to survive culturally at Haskell, even though the schools were designed to erase our Indian culture, values, and identities (Horne & McBeth 32-33)

Essie wanted to ensure that there was a full coexistence of the diverse cultures in a positive and harmonious way. Culture was defined as learned, adaptive, shared, dynamic, and fluid (constantly changing) and integrated relationships between people” (Miller-Thayer, 2012). Though the emic towards her approach was highly loved and commended by the scholars, the etic was in the contrary not as appreciable. Etic refers to the outsiders’ point of view (Miller-Thayer, 2012). At some point, she wondered what would happen if she was caught taking students outside the school compound, into a forest to go and dance around fires to celebrate their culture. It was very interesting to the tutors and the students as well. She prides herself that “I taught my students to have a pride in themselves as individuals and a respect for their heritage” (Horne & McBeth, 58). She did not fear the consequences of her teaching methods, getting outside the authorities, as long as she believed that what she was doing was the right thing for her and her students.

In the process of teaching the students, she also learned and developed the strength to face difficult situations. She learnt to believe that what she was teaching the students mattered more than what the authorities thought about the same. She was strengthened by the belief that her students held with regard to her job as teacher.

Ruth and Ella listened to us. They were interested in what we thought about the subject material and interested in our lives. They taught us that we could accomplish anything that we set our minds to. Their positive attitudes and pleasant dispositions convinced us that they must be right; but they also taught us not to believe that everything we learned was the truth. 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 throughout my life. (Horne & McBeth 42)

She brought about a social mutual bridging, which bridged different perspectives and patterns in order to look for a common perspective or language through which to communicate their ideas (mother and child, teacher and student etc.) in order to coordinate their efforts (Rogoff p. 285). Further, she helped the Indians with acculturation, which refers to adapting to a new culture, while retaining your old one (Miller-Thayer, 2012).

Essie’s approach and belief regarding education helped her become a heroine among the Shoshones. She led them to appreciate their culture and that of the people they lived with. This was done despite the fears that there would be other people who would have different approaches. Their intervention would lead to collapse of all the efforts she put in her work. Nevertheless, she stood her ground and ensured that she did what was right for her and her students. She was independent and demonstrated that the educated are free. They could transform a culture and give it a new definition and that, in return, would lead to peaceful and harmonious coexistence between the Shoshones and other white scholars.


It can be defined as learned, adaptive, shared, dynamic, and fluid (constantly changing) and integrated relationships between people (Miller-Thayer, 2012). Some scientists refer to it as the attributes that a person develops and that do not result from the genetic composition, but the surroundings. Some of the cultural aspects include different morals, ethics, and ethos that a certain society gives to each of its members. Some of the important features of culture include language and customs among others. Different societies have different roles laid on different people in that society. Children’s roles are different from adults` roles, while ladies` roles are different from those that belong to men. Therefore, culture can be referred to be an integral part of the development of a society.

Culture is important in keeping the morals of society. Some of the cultural aspects, such as language, allow people to integrate the past of their society with the present to have the future. It also allows people to get a social identity by learning about their origin through oral literature that is passed from one generation to another. It gives the members of a given society an identity that allows them to congregate together as a result of having a common background and origin.

In her book, Essie’s Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher, Essie describes culture as a way of limiting and regulating the deeds of a given society. While at school, there were modes of dressing that they were supposed to follow and they were required to behave in a manner that was acceptable in the Indian community. They felt oppressed by the pressure to learn new languages, since they opted for their native Shoshone language. This was a very painful thing that the American Indians had to endure.

This was due to policies set forth by the government, but it was also due to the expectation that Americans would conform and become a part of the melting pot. Indian people were taught that their culture was backward and uncivilized, and as a result, many parents did not teach their children the tribal values. They thought it might prevent their children from attaining their full potential in white civilization. Of course, discrimination against Indians continued, whether they spoke English or a tribal language (Horne & McBeth 13)

It was culture that led to the development of Essie into the teacher she became. She believed that culture was supposed to be carried to the future generations and that there was no way that people should discard their past for anything else. This meant that they had to develop a method that they would use to develop and keep their culture moving, despite the unending limitations. This is why Essie started to take students away to the forest to teach them their values and the importance of keeping their cultural identity. They were to keep their focus and ensure that they continued with their Shoshone lineage. She believed in mutual bridging, where different perspectives and patterns “seek a common perspective or language through which to communicate their ideas (mother and child, teacher and student etc.) in order to coordinate their efforts” (Rogoff p. 285) She was also trying to retain acculturation where students adapt to a new culture while retaining their old one (Miller-Thayer, 2012). All these important things that she did made her a renowned person, who fought for her culture and the issues that no other person could try to fight because of fear of being caught and punished. It was these efforts that have led to her indomitable legacy as a person who fought for her culture and kept her head high despite the odds that reigned at that moment. She ensured that Shoshones did not lose their identity, despite being raised away from their native Indian people.


Marriage is a social pattern, in which two sane adults agree to begin a new life where they create a family and this union is legally approved. In most cases the union involves a man and a woman, but in the recent past, cases of same-sex marriages have been reported. The relationships in this union are accredited to be intimate and sexual. In many marriage situations the man is responsible for providing for the family and for the family’s security. The wife ensures that meals are available and also responsible for  upbringing of morally upright children. In most societies, there are many cases where the marriage is regulated between people. Some societies only approve marriages of given standards and regulations. Some admit other communities in which the marriages may be referred to as intermarriages, while some communities do not allow any form of marriage that involves external people. Some cultures allow the parents to determine the spouses of their children, some being determined at a very early age. Marriage is also guided by religion because some cultures are closely tied to religion, with the religious leaders taking the role of blessing newlyweds. In this case, there is a very close correlation between marriage, culture and religion.

This kind of tug of war between the society and spouses can be well elaborated by the marriage between Essie’s parents. The social setting among the Shoshones required that they remained a pure race and that there was no need to marry white people. Essie’s parents had to elope to ensure that they raised a family, which was against the culture and beliefs of the Shoshones. They were Indians and followed the Hindu religion, which eventually led to the belief in purity and homogeneity among the people. Therefore, the marriage between Essie’s parents was highly condemned by the cultural and religious values. They would be a disgrace to the family and could not be easily accepted by the society. They therefore had to elope to far-away places from the Shoshones.

My mother and father ran away to be married because she was Indian, and it wasn’t popular at that time for a white man to marry an Indian girl. And the same vice versa. It was not popular for an Indian girl from our tribe to be marrying a white man because our chief was trying to keep our tribe small. It was small and he was trying to keep it pure and not have a lot of other ethnicities. So he said, “you do not find a blackbird marrying a dove.” So they ran away and went over the mountains into Idaho and lived there. And so we were the only Indian family, with my father was the only man with an Indian family, in my community. Yet he was very much a leader. (Horne & McBeth 1999)

Esther Burnett married her beloved one, who was her high school sweetheart, Robert Horne in 1929. The two had met when she was at the Haskell Indian Institute in Kansas. Horne was at work in the power plant, which was situated in the Wahpeton Indian School, North Dakota. To honor the union Esther had to apply for a transfer from the Eufaula Boarding School for Creek girls, Oklahoma, in 1929 to the Wahpeton School so as to join her husband. It is customary that married couples are bound by the customary laws to stay together as husband and wife. Due to her transfer request she got a placement in the Wahpeton Indian School in February 1930. The family settled in Wahpeton for thirty five years and they had two daughters. In the process of marrying, Essie followed the same steps as her mother, of not marrying a Shoshone. Her husband was a Hoopa from California and Esther had an Indian origin from her mother’s side and a white origin from her father’s side. Apart from the working conditions that faced the couple, the couple could not live among the Shoshones, just as Essie’s parents. They had to go away from the influence of the Shoshone people who were ethnocentric; they believed in the superiority of their own ethnic group as compared to other ethnicities. Esther’s parents lived away from the ancestral land and after her father`s death in 1922 her mother lived on reservations.

Esther wanted the community in Oklahoma to embrace the Indian culture. In this case it meant all the knowledge and values shared by the Indian’s society. Her parents’ elopement obligated her to incorporate the Shoshone way of life despite being away from them and this could have been a great contribution to her choosing to get married to Robert, who was a Hoopa. This also largely influenced her way of bringing up her children, in ensuring that her daughters embraced the Indian culture and this trickled to other community members and children who happened to be her students. Her daughters, despite being raised in Oklahoma, were not integrated into enculturation. Enculturation means the adoption of the behavior patterns of the surrounding culture. She positively influenced their upbringing to incorporate the Indian culture.

Marriage as a part of people`s life is a very important phase that influences their behavior because one has to integrate the beliefs and culture of another person, if they marry a person from a different culture. This could have been a reason that led to Essie’s decision to ensure that there was peace and co-existence between people of different cultures and backgrounds. Her parents were different, and she, also, had a different background from her husband. It could have been a motivational factor that led Essie to increase her efforts to try and bring a common respect for other people’s cultures. She believed that people should not just take up other people’s culture and practices, even if they came together in intimate institutions such as marriage. Her marriage led to a deeper understanding of why people should learn to stay together without leaving their culture. This was a vital aspect that highly contributed to the fact that she became a legendary teacher.

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