Alfonso Ortiz

Photo by Joanne Rijmes, photo courtesy Santa Fe Living Treasures

Native American (Pueblo), Ethnography

Alfonso Ortiz


Dr. Alfonso Ortiz researched his own culture as a native anthropologist and was one of the earliest Native Americans to hold a faculty position in Anthropology. He studied ritual drama, myth, comparative traditional histories, and contemporary Indian Affairs and was an advocate of Indigenous and minority scholars in their pursuit of education and academic careers.

Alfonso Ortiz was born in 1939 on the Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan) Pueblo to Sam and Lupe (Naranjo) Ortiz. His father was Tewa and his mother, Hispanic. While he was very young, his mother became quite ill, so he was raised primarily by his paternal grandparents, who taught him to value speaking the Tewa language. He grew up working with his grandfather for ten to twelve hours per day in the fields owned by Spanish farmers in New Mexico, hoeing corn or chiles, or picking apples for a pittance. After going to nearby rural Bureau of Indian Affairs schools until 8th grade, he attended high school in a nearby town. He went to college first in Santa Fe, moving to Albuquerque to study sociology at the University of New Mexico where he graduated with an AB in Sociology (1961). As a graduate student at Arizona State University, he was influenced by Santa Clara Tewa anthropologist Edward Dozier to switch his focus toward anthropology. He earned his MA degree (1963) and his PhD in Anthropology (1967) at the University of Chicago.  

After a year teaching at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, in 1966, Ortiz joined the Anthropology faculty at Princeton University. While there, he began his activism on behalf of Native Americans on a national scale, serving Native American public service organizations such as the National Advisory Council of the National Indian Youth Council (member, 1972–1990) and the Association on American Indian Affairs, Inc. (AAIA) as president from 1973 to 1988. He helped negotiate the 1970 return of the sacred Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo and was an important mediator in the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff.

In 1974, Ortiz returned to the University of New Mexico as a Professor of Anthropology, remaining there for the rest of his career. During this time, he edited the Southwest volumes (vol. 9 and 10) of Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of Native American Indians (1979, 1983). He also contributed to the development of the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Native American Religious Freedom Act in the 1970s. 

Ortiz believed that members of Indian communities should undertake scholarship about American Indian people themselves and that such work did not solely lie in the hands of   academics and in universities. By writing about his own people, Alfonso Ortiz occupied an unusual spot in anthropology and the academy. His acclaimed book The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society (1969) was a landmark publication in anthropology, providing an insider’s synthesized perspective of the intricate sacred cosmology of the Pueblos. Some members of the community criticized Ortiz for revealing this sacred knowledge to a wider audience. But Ortiz maintained that he did not leak sacred information and instead mostly utilized material that had been previously published in anthropology scholarship. To his credit, leaders in the Pueblo community honored him as a member of their community both at community events, and at his funeral.  

Ultimately, Ortiz was a scholar/activist whose work benefitted his community. Among his numerous awards were Guggenheim (1975) and MacArthur (1982) fellowships.  

His writings of interest to folklorists include:

The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society (1969)

with Richard ErdoesAmerican Indian Myths and Legends (1984)

Ashley Martinez