“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.”

Esther Martinez (P’oe Tsawa)
County : Rio Arriba
Category : Arts
Esther Martinez (P’oe Tsawa)
Esther Martinez (P’oe Tsawa)
Esther Martinez (P’oe Tsawa)
County : Rio Arriba
Category : Arts

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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_______. “Indian Language Bill OK’d by House,” Albuquerque Journal, September 28, 2006, C-4.

Cosgrove, James C. “Finding the Words: Late in Life, Estefanita Martinez Found a Mission: To Introduce Children to the Wonder of Tewa.” Sage (Albuquerque Journal magazine), June 3, 1990, 22–23.

Flores-Turney, Camille. “With Love from Summer Past,” Albuquerque Journal, May 19, 1995, special section edition, 65.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Siri G. Tuttle, and Esther Martinez. “Multimedia Technology in Language and Culture Restoration Efforts at San Juan Pueblo: A Brief History of the Development of the Tewa Language Project,” Wicazo Review vol. 13, no. 2 (1998): 45–58.

Journal Staff Reports. “Tewa Storyteller Honored; Public Service Award Will Go to Eight Other People,” Business Outlook, Albuquerque Journal, October 9, 2006, 2.

_______. “Around Northern New Mexico,” Albuquerque Journal, May 11, 2006, 4.

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Martinez, Esther. My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez. Edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs and Josephine Binford, with M. Ellien Carroll, Henrietta M. Smith, and  Tilar Mazzeo. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Martinez, Esther, with Randall H. Speirs and Members of the San Juan Pueblo Bilingual Program. San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary. San Juan Pueblo Bilingual Programs, 1983.

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Martinez, Estefanita. Illustrations by Rick Reagan. The Naughty Little Rabbit and the Old Man Coyote: A Tewa Story from San Juan Pueblo. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1992.

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Pasatiempo staff. “Hail and Farewell,” Santa Fe New Mexican. December 29, 2006, A-50.

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_______. “The Sound of Bluewater,” Santa Fe New Mexican, August 20 2004, 62.

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