Esther Martinez, 94; Preserved Language

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Esther Martinez, a storyteller, linguist and teacher who dedicated herself to preserving the Tewa language of the Northern Pueblos of New Mexico, died Sept. 16 in a traffic accident in Espanola, N.M., after receiving the nation's highest honor for folk artists. She was 94.

Mrs. Martinez was on her way home to Ohkay Owingeh and was near Sante Fe when the car in which she was traveling was struck by a drunk driver, her grandson said. She had been in Washington for a week attending a National Endowment for the Arts celebration. She was one of 11 folk and traditional artists honored as a 2006 National Heritage Fellow.

In a statement yesterday, the NEA called Mrs. Martinez a "national treasure" and noted that she received a standing ovation at a banquet in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress for her stories and life's work.

"Esther has been a keeper of the language central to Pueblo expression and identity as well as a storyteller whose traditional tales both enlighten and entertain," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said.

Storytelling is a part of the Tewa culture and a way of life, said Matthew Martinez, Mrs. Martinez's grandson. She was a natural and had a skill for conveying stories, he said. "She embodied what it meant to be a Tewa person and lived it and practiced it and served as a role model."

Mrs. Martinez -- also known by her American Indian name, P'oe Tsawa, or Blue Water -- was born in Ignacio, Calif., where her parents went to work in fields. She grew up with her grandparents in what was then called San Juan Pueblo, home to one of the eight Northern Pueblos and six Tewa-speaking tribes.

As part of a government program, she and other Indian children were sent to boarding schools. She was 25 miles from her grandparents and alone. She recalled the harsh punishment she received for speaking her Tewa language, her grandson wrote in her biography.

She graduated from the Albuquerque Indian School in 1930, and for the next three decades she worked in a series of jobs -- cooking and cleaning -- and took care of her 10 children.

Two daughters were in the car when she was killed. They are recovering. In addition to them, survivors include eight other children; 18 grandchildren; 24 great-grandchildren; and nine great-great-grandchildren.

At 54, while working at the John F. Kennedy School in San Juan Pueblo, a linguist approached Mrs. Martinez about documenting the Tewa language. She took several courses and was soon teaching the language at a day school.

Known by many in her community as Ko'oe Esther, or Aunt Esther, Mrs. Martinez taught her native tongue from 1974 to 1989 at schools in San Juan Pueblo, now known as Ohkay Owingeh.

She helped translate the New Testament of the Bible into Tewa and compiled Tewa dictionaries for pueblos, which have distinct dialects.

In 1988, Mrs. Martinez began telling her stories in English to non-Tewa audiences through Storytelling International. She often introduced herself by saying, "She was born in 1912, the same year New Mexico became a state and the Titanic sunk," her grandson wrote.

In addition to her NEA award, Mrs. Martinez received New Mexico's Living Treasures Award, the National Association for Bilingual Education's Pioneer Award and the 1997 Teacher of the Year Award from the National Council of American Indians.

An author, Mrs. Martinez published the children's book "The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote" (1992). In 2004, she released "My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez," in which she recalled the storytelling that shaped her youth. She wrote:

"[S]torytelling 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."

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