Esther Martinez

Esther Martinez
Native name P'oe Tsawa
Born 1912
Died September 16, 2006
Nationality American
Other names Estefanita Martinez, "Ko'oe Esther"
Education Santa Fe Indian School, Albuquerque Indian School
Occupation Linguist, teacher in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico
Known for Dedication to preserving the Tewa language
Children 10
Relatives Grandson, Dr. Matthew J. Martinez
Awards National Heritage Fellowship (2006), Honorary Bachelor of Arts, Northern New Mexico College (2006); National Association for Bilingual Education, Pioneer Award (1992), Living Treasure Award from the State of New Mexico (1996), Indian Education Award for Teacher of the Year from the National Council of American Indians, Woman of the Year Award (1997), New Mexico Arts Commission Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts (1998) and the Indigenous Language Institute Award for “Those Who Make a Difference”; (1999).

Esther Martinez also known as Estefanita Martinez, (1912 September 16, 2006) was a linguist and storyteller for the Tewa people of New Mexico. Martinez was given the Tewa name P'oe Tsawa (meaning Blue Water) and was also known by various affectionate names, including "Ko'oe Esther" and "Aunt Esther."

She lived to be 94 years old, and was known for her commitment to preserving the Tewa language. Her San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary was published in 1982.


Martinez grew up in the southwest. She was born in Ignacio, Colorado, where she lived with her parents; later, she lived with her grandparents in Ohkay Owingeh.[1][2] Later in life, she would write:

“You who have grandparents to talk to are so lucky, because I treasure my grandparents and the things that I have learned from them. My grandfather was a storyteller. Indian people get their lessons from stories they were told as children. So a lot of our stories are learning experiences.”[3]

Martinez attended the Santa Fe Indian School and Albuquerque Indian School, graduating in 1930.[4] "That she survived her years in boarding school and went on to help her community by perpetuating the language is a powerful statement," said her grandson, Matthew J. Martinez. "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," said Martinez, who learned Tewa from her."[5]

As an adult, Esther Martinez would become one of the greatest champions in the fight to preserve the Tewa language. New Mexico's first lady, Barbara Richardson, said "She went on to almost single-handedly save the Tewa language."[6]

After graduation, she raised ten children and worked various cooking and cleaning jobs. In the mid-60s, while she was working at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Pueblo, she met a linguist, Randall Speirs, who asked for her help in documenting the Tewa language. She worked with him during the 1960s and 1970s to develop a Tewa language dictionary.[7]

From about 1974 to 1989, Martinez taught Tewa at Ohkay Owingeh.[4] She translated the New Testament into Tewa, in association with Wycliffe Bible Translators.[8] She also wrote a collection of stories, My Life In San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez, published by University of Illinois Press in 2004, which received the Elli Köngäs-Maranda Prize.[9] Martinez received an honorary Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education from Northern New Mexico College in 2006,[10] where she worked with the Northern Pueblo Institute.[11] She served as a traditional storyteller for the National Park Service.[12][13]

On September 16, 2006 Martinez was returning home from Washington, D.C., where she had been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, at a banquet in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress. Near Española, New Mexico the car in which she was riding was hit by another vehicle, whose driver had been drinking. Martinez was killed in the crash.[6][14]


In December 2006, US H.R. 4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, was signed into law, authorizing funding for new programs that tribes will use to prevent the loss of heritage and culture. As of Sept. 15, 2012, members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have introduced legislation to extend the program for another five years.[15]

On November 8, 2008, a New Mexico State Historic Marker was unveiled on Ohkay Owingeh and dedicated to Esther Martinez.[6][8][14]

The San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary, written by Martinez in 1992, was described as "one of the most remarkable of these efforts at documentation of an endangered language,"... [by] Melissa Axelrod, associate professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico. "It has a wealth of vocabulary and grammatical information and is rich with cultural nuance."[5]

As of 2008, her grandson, Dr. Matthew J. Martinez "serves on the Ohkay Owingeh School Board, where he is assisting in the implementation and support of the Tewa language curriculum."[16]




  1. Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb (2006-09-19). "Esther Martinez, 94; Preserved Language". Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  2. "Native American storyteller dies at 94". NBC News. 2006-09-18. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  3. "Protecting Native American Languages and Culture". Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  4. 1 2 Matthew J. Martinez. "Esther Martinez : Voices From the Gaps". University of Minnesota. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  5. 1 2 Jocelyn Y. Stewart (2006-09-24). "Esther Martinez, 94; Tewa Speaker Worked to Save Her Language". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  6. 1 2 3 Staci Matlock (2008-11-08). "Esther Martinez: 'A way to honor her spirit', Historical roadside marker celebrates Tewa linguist and renowned storyteller". The Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  7. Carolyn Gonzales (2004-06-21). "Student Research, Outside the Box > > Susan Buescher, Preserving Nambe dialect focus of language project". University of New Mexico Campus News. 39 (16). Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  8. 1 2 "National Heritage Fellow, Esther Martinez Honored With Roadside Marker". 2008-11-05. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  9. "Martinez, Esther". New Mexico Office of the State Historian. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  10. Martin Salazar (2006-09-19). "Alcohol Suspected in Crash That Killed Tewa Storyteller". ABQjournal. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  11. "Northern Pueblo Institute". Northern New Mexico College. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  12. "My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez". University of Illinois Press. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  13. "Estefanita "Blue Water" Martinez". Santa Fe Living Treasures. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  14. 1 2 ""Her Legacy Lives On", Historical Marker Honors Tewa Storyteller and Educator". Santa Fe Journal, 2008-11-08. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
  15. "Local news in brief". The Santa Fe New Mexican. 2012-09-15. Retrieved 2012-09-27.
  16. "Matthew J. Martinez". Native Networks. Retrieved 2012-09-29.

External links

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