Esther Martinez Biography

native american woman standing outsideEsther Martinez (1912 – September 16, 2006) was a linguist and storyteller for the Tewa people of New Mexico.  She was given the Tewa name P’oe Tsawa (meaning Blue Water) and was also known by   "Ko'oe Esther" and "Aunt Esther."

Growing up in the southwest she lived with her parents in Colorado, then lived with her grandparents in Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo).  As part of a government program, she was sent to a boarding school 25 miles from her grandparent’s home.  She recalled the harsh punishment she received for speaking her Tewa language while attending the boarding school.  Martinez graduated from school in 1930. 

After graduation, she raised ten children while working various cooking and cleaning jobs.  In the 1960s, she worked at John F. Kennedy Middle School in San Juan Pueblo, where she was asked for her help in documenting the Tewa language. Mrs. Martinez also worked to develop the publication of the first Tewa Language Dictionary used at the Ohkay Owingeh Day School and has since been revised and modeled in other Tewa-speaking villages.

From 1974 to 1989, Mrs. Martinez taught Tewa at Ohkay Owingeh.  She also translated the New Testament into Tewa.  In 1988, Mrs. Martinez began telling her stories in English to non-Tewa audiences through Storytelling International, often introducing herself by saying she was born in 1912, the same year New Mexico became a state and the Titanic sunk.   

Framed photo of Esther Martinez next to flowers.In 1992, Mrs. Martinez published the children's book "The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote."  In 2004, she released "My Life in San Juan Pueblo:  Stories of Esther Martinez," recalling stories that shaped her youth.  In her book she wrote “storytelling was done mainly in the wintertime, not summer.  It was done in the wintertime because it shortened the evenings, the long winter nights.  And it was the time when the last snake had crawled in, the bear and other animals had gone hibernating, and we have heard the last of the thunders.  At storytelling, children's stories were told first.  Stories were told to teach us tips for survival and for socialization in the community. They were fun.  Our whole life is about storytelling."

In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. honored Mrs. Martinez as a 2006 National Heritage Fellow for folk and traditional artists. 

In December 2006, US H.R.4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act was signed into law authorizing ANA to expand funding to include language immersion projects.