Preserving the Language, Preserving the Culture

The Vision and Impact of Esther Martinez
Native-American woman wearing pink sweater.
NEA National Heritage Fellow Esther Martinez. Photo courtesy of the artist

When 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow Esther Martinez attended school in the 1920s, she was punished for speaking her native Tewa language. This was typical for Native-American children who were forced to attend government boarding schools—along with cutting children’s hair, giving them Christian names, and enforcing Western dress and etiquette, it was part of the government’s larger goal of breaking the generational link necessary to sustain any culture or tradition. In the words of Captain Richard H. Pratt, who opened the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879, Native education was meant to, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

But Martinez never forgot her native tongue. She retained it through her boarding school years, through raising ten children, and through her years as a janitor and cook. When she was approached by linguist Randall Speirs in the mid-1960s, she had carefully preserved the language, stories, and traditions of New Mexico’s San Juan Pueblo people.

Working with Speirs, Martinez helped create a Tewa dictionary and translated the New Testament into Tewa. She began teaching Tewa classes at San Juan Pueblo schools, and passed on Tewa stories to her own people as well as to English speakers at events such as the International Storytelling Festival. She has been credited with almost single-handedly saving the Tewa language, a feat which garnered her the Heritage Fellowship.

But this was just the start of her linguistic legacy. After she was killed in a car crash at age 93 on her way home from the NEA National Heritage Awards Ceremony, Congress passed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act in 2006. The Act offers three-year grants for language immersion schools and early childcare centers, as well as community language programs.

Elderly woman being interviewed onstage surrounded by her family.
Esther Martinez with her family at the rehearsal for the NEA National Heritage Fellowship Concert in 2006, with emcee Nick Spitzer. Photo by Tom Pich

Today, the Esther Martinez grants are a critical part of funding for Native immersion schools across the nation, including the White Clay Immersion School, which is housed within the Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Harlem, Montana. The school was founded in 2003 by Lynette Chandler after she promised her dying grandmother that she would work to save the Aaniiih language. At that time, Aaniiih was only spoken by a handful of elders, all but one of whom have since passed away. Today, Chandler estimates there are close to four dozen students and adults who are fluent or nearly fluent in the language.

“It’s a heavy weight on a small person’s shoulders,” said Chandler of White Clay students, who learn not only Aaniiih but cultural traditions such as how to work with medicinal plants, how to sew ribbon skirts, and how to handle horses. “But we have a responsibility to our people and to our ancestors—who had it much harder than we do—to keep our ways alive, to practice our ways, to speak our language, and to carry on and learn the teachings that have come through with time. It’s our job to learn these things, and it’s our job to pass them on.”

Roughly 170 Native languages are still spoken in the United States today—about half the number that existed when the country was first colonized. Of those still spoken, all but 20 or so are considered critically endangered, and could be extinct by 2050 according to some experts. However, the past decade has shown promise: as recognition of the devastating effects of language loss has grown, so too has counteractive funding at the federal and local levels, including the Esther Martinez grants. To date, 52 Esther Martinez grants have been awarded for a total of $12.9 million.

This funding has helped expand a movement to ensure “native languages are not just part of some sort of history lesson,” said Lillian Sparks Robinson, the former commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), which is the agency that administers the Esther Martinez grants. “That is a goal for every Native community—to be able to get back to a place where the children are learning the language in their home, they’re using it on a daily basis, in casual settings, in formal settings, socially, academically, professionally.” Robinson said the effects of getting back to such a place would be profound. “We’d see healthier families, and I think we’d see communities that are thriving socially, economically, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally,” she said.

Chandler is already beginning to see the effects on her own community. Since the White Clay Immersion School was founded, she said tribal members have once again begun calling themselves the White Clay or Aaniiih—previously, they had referred to themselves as the Gros Ventre, which is the federally recognized term, and which Chandler noted, is French. Buildings at the college now all feature Aaniiih names, and the tribe has begun a language preservation program of its own. Even the varsity girls basketball team at a public school 25 miles away has started wearing ribbon skirts on game days after their manager—a seventh-grader from White Clay, which has a sports co-op with the public school—began wearing her own ribbon skirt to games. “That’s showing we’re instilling Native pride; we’re helping other people bring back our culture,” said Chandler.

LaRae Wiley, who founded the Salish School of Spokane in Spokane, Washington, has begun to see changes in her community as well. When the immersion school was founded in 2010, there were only 20 or so Salish-speaking elders in the Spokane area. There are now 69 students currently enrolled, thanks in large part to two Esther Martinez grants, which supported the creation of an early childhood center and elementary school, as well as the development of 200 early reading books in Salish. Wiley said people increasingly greet one another on the street with the Salish word for “hello,” and community language classes—held three times a week—have proven popular not just with students’ parents, who are required by the Salish School to attend language classes, but with other community members as well.

Children in a circle drumming on a large drum.
A drum circle at the Salish School of Spokane, Washington, where students learn not only their Native language but also their traditional culture. Photo by LaRae Wiley

But perhaps most profound is the effect on students themselves. “Our students are recognized as speakers and leaders,” said Chandler of White Clay children. “They’re really revered as special people within our community. They get called upon to give prayers at different things, ceremonies—even midnight mass in the Catholic Church. Everybody in the community tells me that they know which kids are from the Immersion School and which are not, because our students are very respectful, they’re quiet, they listen when they’re supposed to be listening. They just carry themselves in a certain way.”

This special quality is borne out in academic performance. A growing body of research has shown that Native-American students taught in their Native language demonstrate higher test scores, graduate from high school at higher rates, and have increased rates of college matriculation. This could be critical to close the achievement gap between Native and non-Native students: according to the 2011 National Indian Education Study, Native-American children in eighth grade scored 28 points behind white students in math and 22 points behind in reading.

Wiley believes the connection between language and academic achievement is clear. “If you have a strong foundation for who you are, where you come from, you have pride in yourself, then you are just more resilient,” she said. “You can handle what life throws at you without turning to drugs or alcohol or things that can take you off track. What I think that language and culture creates is that wholeness, that resiliency. That’s going to empower our young people to finish high school, go to college, become professionals in the community, but also hang on to all those traditional things that we so desperately need.”

It’s a resiliency Esther Martinez herself possessed. In a Los Angeles Times obituary for Martinez, her grandson Matthew said of his grandmother, “No matter the harsh conditions, she still carried that desire to hold on to her language and culture and document it and pass it on. Growing up, I sort of took it for granted. We had our family, my grandmother, our dances, our ceremonies. That was a way of life. I realize not everybody has that connection. It’s a gift. It really is a gift.”

Thanks to the Esther Martinez Act, it’s a gift that Native children across the country now possess. “I don’t know if [Martinez] would have ever thought that her work would have affected so many tribes,” said Wiley, noting that there were now five Native language immersion schools in her area of Washington alone. “I don’t know that she would have ever envisioned her work had this huge of an impact.”