Esther Martinez was born in 1912 in Utah—the same year that New Mexico became a state. Her father named her P’oe Tsawa (Blue Water) after his favorite fishing hole. When she was still a baby, the family moved to Colorado. There, her father, whom she described as a “jack of all trades,” worked as a miner, a janitor, a milkman, a gardener, and a night watchman. Although away from Ohkay Owinge, the family remained connected to home by keeping the Tewa language alive. Visits from Martinez’s grandmother and grandfather also helped to shorten the distance. Martinez tagged along with her grandparents at the end of one such visit. In a covered wagon they headed for Ohkey Owinge, a place that the young girl had never even visited. She would continue to reside there with her grandparents.
Life in the village was different. Houses huddled close together and shared common walls. Martinez’s grandmother would simply knock on a wall to get the attention of her sister, who lived in the connecting house next door. Martinez and her grandparents lived in a humble dwelling with no furniture and a bedroll that served as a bed at night and a chair during the day. In hindsight, Martinez noted that she appreciated the strong sense of community despite the absence of material wealth. From traditional storytelling by her grandfather and other elders, Martinez learned Pueblo values such as a respecting elders and working as a community.
At about the age of ten, Martinez went to Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school for Indian youth about twenty-five miles south of Ohkay Owinge. She completed her high school education, graduating from Albuquerque Indian School in 1931. Thereafter, she worked in a number of service-related jobs to support her ten children.
Martinez began her career as a linguist and storyteller relatively late in life. When she was about fifty-four she met Randy Speirs, a linguist, who at the time was working on a project documenting the Tewa language. He asked her if she wanted to learn to read and write the language that she already spoke fluently. She agreed and went on to take linguistic classes at the University of North Dakota and at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. In collaboration with Speirs, she helped to compile the San Juan Pueblo Dictionary, student curriculum guides, and storybooks, all in Tewa. She served as the Bilingual Education Program director and teacher for the San Juan Pueblo Day School from 1975 to 1985, and as co-director of the Tewa Language Project from 1995 to 1998.
She traveled throughout New Mexico, and occasionally to other states, telling her stories. In 1992, Martinez’s children’s book The Naughty Little Rabbit and the Old Man Coyote was released. In 2004, the University of Illinois published, My Life in San Juan Pueblo, a collection of autobiographical stories detailing Martinez’s personal experiences, as well as Tewa stories. The book won the Kongas-Maranda prize from the Women’s Section of the American Folklore Society.
Martinez received dozens of awards recognizing her role as a storyteller, educator, and champion for the preservation of indigenous languages and cultures, including the Pioneer Award from the National Association for Bilingual Education (1992), the Indian Education Award for Teacher of Year from the National Council of American Indians (1997), and the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts (1998). Sadly, in September 2006 Martinez died in a car accident shortly after receiving recognition from a Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for folk artists. She has left behind a profound legacy and compiled a wealth of cultural knowledge, which will surely guide her community of Ohkay Owinge for generations to come.
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