NEA Arts Magazine

Esther Martinez

Native American linguist and storyteller, Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico


2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow Esther Martinez with daughter Josie, NEA Folk and Traditional Arts Director Barry Bergey, and NEA Chairman Dana Gioia

2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow Esther Martinez with daughter Josie, NEA Folk and Traditional Arts Director Barry Bergey (left), and NEA Chairman Dana Gioia (right) at the Library of Congress banquet. Photo by Tom Pich

Known as Poe Tswa (Blue Water) and Kooe (Aunt) Esther, master storyteller Esther Martinez was a much beloved tradition bearer of the Tewa people. New Mexico state folklorist Claude Stephenson succinctly summed up her contribution to Tewa culture: "She serves as the rock that has firmly anchored the ancient and the timeless stories of the people to the present and guaranteed their survival for the pueblo people of the future."

Martinez was raised by her grandparents in San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico (now called Ohkay Owingeh), where she was immersed in the pueblo's communal traditions. As an adult she became an advocate for the conservation of the Tewa language. Her efforts included storytelling, teaching, and the compilation of Tewa dictionaries for each of the six Tewa dialects. "When my grandfather said something that I didn't know," Martinez said about creating the dictionaries, "I would ask him and I would write it on a paper. It took me a long time."

In her late 70s, Martinez traveled throughout the U.S. with Storytelling International, for the first time telling her traditional stories in English to non-Tewa audiences. Martinez eagerly embraced her role as a tradition bearer, especially among the pueblo's young people. She said, "People still come to my house wanting help with information for their college paper or wanting a storyteller. Young folks from the village, who were once my students in bilingual classes, will stop by for advice in traditional values or wanting me to give Indian names to their kids or grandkids . . .This is my poeh (my path). I am still traveling."

Martinez was killed in an auto accident in September 2006 after attending the NEA National Heritage Fellowships ceremony in Washington, DC. During the awards ceremony on Capitol Hill earlier that week, she was joined by U.S. Representative Tom Udall (New Mexico–3rd District), who spoke eloquently of Martinez's contributions and presented her with a plaque. Chairman Dana Gioia noted upon learning of her passing: "New Mexico and the entire country have lost an eloquent link to our past. We can find solace in remembering her lifelong commitment to keeping her culture alive and vibrant. Our prayers are with Esther and her family -- and all those who have come to know and love her."

Congress has since passed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006. Introduced by U.S. Representative Heather Wilson (New Mexico–1st District), the bill authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to award competitive grants to establish native language programs for students under the age of seven and their families to preserve the indigenous languages of Native American tribes.