Esther Martinez (P’oe Tsáwa)

Photo provided to NEA in 2006 by Esther Martinez; used here courtesy of NEA Folk and Traditional Arts division.

Native American (Tewa Pueblo), Linguistics, Education, Cultural Activism

Esther Martinez (P’oe Tsáwa)


Esther Martinez was born in 1912 to parents who worked in the fields in Ignacio, Colorado. After she was five, her grandparents raised her and moved her by covered wagon to live with them in Ohkay Owingeh (formerly known as San Juan Pueblo), New Mexico, where traditional storytelling was a daily part of her life. 

When Martinez reached fifth grade, she was forced to attend the Santa Fe Indian school, a boarding school 25 miles from her grandparents’ home that promoted the federal government assimilation program. In order to eradicate and replace Native American culture and identity with “civilization,” the school did not permit her to speak her Tewa language. Martinez graduated from the Albuquerque Indian school in 1930, but held on to and continued to use her beloved language and the stories that she had learned from her dear grandfather.

After graduation, she raised ten children and taught them the Tewa language while working various cooking and janitorial jobs. She became a renowned storyteller, sharing both the stories passed down to her through family and creating stories of her own. In the late 1960s, linguist Randall Spiers encouraged her to document the Tewa language. After attending linguistics classes taught by Spiers and others, she developed curricular materials to teach her language and served as a Tewa instructor and Director of Bilingual Education in the Ohkay Owingeh public schools for over 20 years. Martinez published a dictionary of San Juan Tewa language (1983) that set a model for documenting endangered languages that has been replicated by other indigenous nations across the country, including in some of the other Tewa speaking pueblos. In 2006, after her death in an accident attributed to a drunk driver, the US Congress passed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, which funds new programs to prevent the loss of native languages, heritage, and culture, a cause for which she had persistently advocated.    

Esther Martinez’s honors include the National Association for Bilingual Education Pioneer Award (1992); Living Treasure Award from the State of New Mexico (1996); Indian Education Award (1997); New Mexico Arts Commission Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts (1998); the Elli Köngäs -Maranda Prize for excellence in women’s folklore (2004); an honorary BA in Early Childhood Education from Northern New Mexico College (2006); and the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship (2006). 

Among her publications of interest to folklorists are:

My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez (2004)

The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote (1992)

San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary (1983)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda