Esther Martinez: Protecting the Intangible Heritage of the Tewa People
Indigenous languages, the core of intangible cultural heritage, are central to the identity of Indigenous peoples, but most of the languages spoken when North America was first colonized have been lost or are critically endangered. Esther Martinez—author, linguist, legendary storyteller for New Mexico’s Tewa people, and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow—is credited with saving the Tewa language, spoken by six Pueblo Indian tribes.
In the introduction to Martinez’s book, “My Life in San Juan Pueblo,” Tessie Naranjo, an independent scholar on language and cultural preservation writes, “We come from a tradition that values the music of language, its poetry, and its ability to conjure images. When you speak Tewa, the words sing to you as they are spoken.” Protecting language, the heart of Indigenous cultures, is critical to preserving the history and lifeways of Native American people.
Martinez was born in 1912 in Ignacio, Colorado, where her parents worked in the fields. At a young age, she traveled by covered wagon to San Juan Pueblo (now known as Ohkay Owingeh) in New Mexico to live with her grandparents.
After graduating from the Albuquerque Indian School in 1930, Martinez returned to San Juan Pueblo. While working as a housekeeper at the Pueblo’s John F. Kennedy Middle School, she was asked to help document the Tewa language.
Along with a team of linguists and community members, Martinez spearheaded the groundbreaking work of writing Tewa. Her San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary, the first Tewa language dictionary, was published in 1982. Martinez dedicated her life to teaching Tewa at the San Juan Day School and establishing the Tewa Bilingual Program. The Tewa language continues to remain a central component of the school’s mission.
“Storytelling was done mainly in the wintertime because it shortened the long winter nights, when the last snake had crawled in, the bear had gone hibernating, and we had heard the last of the thunders. Stories taught us tips for survival and for socialization in the community. They were fun. Our whole lives are about storytelling.”Esther Martinez, "My Life in San Juan Pueblo"
Esther Martinez died in 2006 at the age of 94, shortly after being honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. as a 2006 National Heritage Fellow for folk and traditional artists. That same year, H.R. 4766, the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act was signed into law (it was reauthorized in 2012).
The Act offers three-year grants for Native American language immersion schools, early childcare centers, and community language programs. Proving Martinez correct, a growing body of research shows that Native students who are taught in their Native language have higher test scores and are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.
As one Esther Martinez Act grantee explained, “If you have a strong foundation for who you are and where you come from, you have pride in yourself. . . . [L]anguage and culture create that wholeness, that resiliency to help you succeed in everything you do.”
To learn more about Martinez’s life and work in protecting the intangible heritage of her people, we interviewed her grandson Matthew J. Martinez, Ph.D., now the deputy director of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
What do you remember about your grandmother?
My grandmother was most comfortable at her home, which was a short walk to where the Chama and Rio Grande rivers meet. At the pueblo, everyone refers to this as the Two Rivers. It was common for our family to go fishing and camping at the river. Her storytelling includes the coyote, rabbit, and fireflies who can all be visited at the Two Rivers.
When she wasn’t at the river, she was sleeping outside until it got too cold. My grandmother loved the outdoors and was proud of all her chickens, ducks, cats, and dogs who, too, were family members. She was always working in her garden or on sewing projects. Later in life, her vision was not as clear, and she would still continue to sew by saying, “Now my fingertips have become my eyes.” Her personality was to never be idle and to talk and be with nature.
Why was protecting and teaching the Tewa language so important to your grandmother?
My grandmother was a product of the boarding school era in the early 1900s. This was a national movement to remove Native children from their homes and educate them in strict Western ideals. The prohibition of Indigenous languages was a key component to the removal of their Native identities and self-value. Students were severely punished for speaking their native tongue. This was the only language they knew. It was the core of their identity.
Native people were to be completely stripped of identity and trained to be good workers; the girls were taught cooking and sewing, while the boys were taught a variety of trades. It was a period of rapid development in the U.S., and Native people were seen as a hindrance to this perceived progress.
My grandmother went to the Santa Fe Indian School at the age of 7. She recalled they were given a comfortable bed with nice sheets, but there was no grandfather there or grandmothers to tell you stories or comfort kids. The students had to form their own families. This greatly impacted her, like many others, who committed to holding on to speaking their language and passing this on to future generations.
What lasting lessons did your grandmother teach you?
My grandmother taught me perseverance. The histories of Native peoples are highly complex and continue because of those who persevered. She recognized a need for language protection and did something.
It was perhaps those times growing up at the Santa Fe Indian School when she learned to get through challenging times and do something about it. She raised ten kids, worked, and put food on the table. She did not become a formal educator until much later in life. Our family remembers her all the time and reflects that she was always teaching us life lessons.
How did your grandmother’s work inspire your work at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture?
I’ve dedicated my life to work in the areas of education and cultural preservation. My grandmother inspired me to recognize that our objects and artifacts are not just items stored in collections, but to the contrary, that they are a testament to the creativity and celebration of indigenous peoples.
Our life experiences are embedded in our stories. Despite the federal government’s efforts to eradicate Native people, we continue to thrive as educators, leaders, and communities. These are the stories I wish to share with the public when visiting the museum.
Our museum also serves as a place for schools and students to learn about our histories and cultures, which are often not included in standard textbooks. MIAC is positioned to continue being of service and good stewardship.
In what ways has your grandmother’s work continued?
My grandmother saw a need to document and write our Tewa language. Our language was always orally taught in the home. Due to drastic shifts of families moving to work in the cities or impacts of the Vietnam War, our communities were challenged with being together at home, speaking Tewa. She saw a need to put language onto paper.
This was a huge cultural shift to document language. She ended up publishing the first Tewa language dictionary and later "My Life in San Juan Pueblo". Many of our neighboring Tewa speaking communities have adapted her model and continue that work.
Our Tewa teacher at the Ohkay Owingeh Community School works diligently to teach language and traditions. We are fortunate to have our brave ancestors who carved a path for us to follow. Language is much more than just the spoken word; it is a value system that centered on respect and community responsibility.
That is the legacy of my grandmother’s work.
Peggy Mainor is the executive director of the MICA Group. Evie Freeman is a law student at Stanford University.
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