American Portraits

In Her Weakness Made Strong: Esther Ross and Respect

In this lesson, students will learn about the Stillaguamish tribe and the woman who fought to gain recognition and respect for their lands and customs. Through her example, students will better understand the role that respect should play in their own lives.

Founding Principles

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Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

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Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

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Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Narrative

Up to the time she entered high school, there was not much to mark Esther Johnson as a member of any Native American tribe. Her last name bespoke her Norwegian forebears, from whom her father came. It was from the stories of her mother, Evangelina, that young Esther learned to take deep pride in the stories of the Stillaguamish people and her great-grandfather, Chief Chaddus. When she revealed her heritage to her friends, she had, perhaps, her first taste of the disrespect shown to Native Americans, as she was shunned. Eventually, Ross’ relatives, who knew that she had a more advanced education than they did, wrote to her and asked her to help them file claims with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for their rightful tribal benefits. Leaving everything she had ever known, the newly-married Esther Ross took her husband and newborn and went to the aid of her forgotten countrymen in 1926….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you be respectful of your heritage?

Virtue Defined

Respect is civility flowing from personal humility.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the Stillaguamish tribe and the woman who fought to gain recognition and respect for their lands and customs. Through her example, students will better understand the role that respect should play in their own lives.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the actions of Esther Ross and the manner in which she attempted to have the Stillaguamish tribe recognized by the federal government.
  • Students will apply their knowledge about respect to their own lives.
  • Students will understand why a lack of respect can cause problems, and they will determine ways to solve problems by acting respectfully.

Background

In 1855, the United States signed the Point Elliott Treaty with a number of Native American tribes in what is now Snohomish County in Washington State. Outmatched by the vastly more powerful U.S. Army, the chiefs could do little but remove their people to the reservations prepared for them. The only real concession granted by the U.S. government was the right of the tribes to return to their annual fishing grounds in the salmon-heavy rivers.

Among them was a small tribe of hunter-gatherers known as the Stillaguamish, or People of the River. Disrespected even by the larger Pacific tribes, the Stillaguamish chief, like most of those who signed the Point Elliott Treaty, could not speak or read English. Therefore, he did not understand that the United States had not even considered them worthy of a reservation of their own. Over the next several decades, the Stillaguamish either lived on the reservation of the more powerful Tulalip tribe or melted back into the forests to live undetected by the federal government. That the Stillaguamish people are still alive today is a testament to the tireless efforts of one woman to bring them the respect due to all peoples: Esther Ross.

Vocabulary

  • Concession
  • Shunned
  • Reservation
  • Contrition
  • Pest
  • Nuisance
  • Precedent
  • Opposition
  • Apathy
  • Bicentennial
  • Traverse
  • Unanimous
  • Acclamation

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Esther Ross and why was she significant?
  • Why did Esther Ross demand respect for her tribe?
  • How did Esther Ross promote freedom for herself and others?
  • What actions did Ross take to gain respect and recognition for the Stillaguamish?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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