Leader’s Profile – Storyteller Esther Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh)

My Life in San Juan Pueblo by Ester Martinez

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

Growing up in the southwest she lived with her parents in Colorado, then lived with her grandparents in Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo). As part of a government program, she was sent to a boarding school 25 miles from her grandparent’s home. She recalled the harsh punishment she received for speaking her Tewa language while attending the boarding school. Martinez graduated from school in 1930.

After graduation, she raised ten children while working various cooking and cleaning jobs. In the 1960s, she worked at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Okhay Owingeh Pueblo, where she was asked for her help in documenting the Tewa language. Mrs. Martinez also worked to develop the publication of the first Tewa Language Dictionary used at the Ohkay Owingeh Day School and has since been revised and modeled in other Tewa-speaking villages.

From 1974 to 1989, Mrs. Martinez taught Tewa at Ohkay Owingeh. She also translated the New Testament into Tewa. In 1988, Mrs. Martinez began telling her stories in English to non-Tewa audiences through Storytelling International, often introducing herself by saying she was born in 1912, the same year New Mexico became a state and the Titanic sunk.

Read more in the book: My Life in the San Juan Pueblo: Stories by Esther Martinez 

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

My Life in the San Juan Pueblo

In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. honored Mrs. Martinez as a 2006 National Heritage Fellow for folk and traditional artists.

In December 2006, US H.R.4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act was signed into law authorizing ANA to expand funding to include language immersion projects.

Information courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and National Endowment for the Arts.

Sign up for our newsletter

3 comments

  • THANKS FOR THIS INFO. I ENJOYED LEARNING ABOUT THIS PERSON AND ALL THAT SHE ACCOMPLISH FOR HER HERITAGE TO BE TOLD THRU HER BOOKS AND STORYTELLING. I WAS VERY IMPRESSED BY HER TRANSLATING THE NEW TESTAMENT INTO TEWA.

    NANCY KUMBIER
  • What a beautiful story, I would love to have one of the language books. How can I get one?

    Melody Porrazzo
  • Great kudos to Esther Martinez!! Her work and artistry – all of which helped preserve and honor our traditional Pueblo artists and cultures as national treasures – will live on forever to educate future generations, here and around the world!!

    PAUL YAMAUCHI

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Your connection to authentic Pueblo art and artists...

Learn More