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Esther Martínez:The San Juan Storyteller

Born: 1912

By Matthew Martínez

My grandmother Esther Martínez often introduces herself by saying that she was born in 1912, the same year New Mexico became a state and the Titanic sank. The metaphor of the birth of a new period in history as well as the sinking of the Titanic parallels much of my grandmother’s life. As a young child grandmother spent the early part of her life living with her parents in Ignacio, Colorado. She refers to this as Ute Country where her parents, much like many Pueblo people, worked in the fields in the early twentieth century. She recalls that one day her grandmother traveled from San Juan Pueblo to visit her parents. As a young child, my grandmother was a tag along and wanted to join her grandmother on her trip back to Pueblo Country. Not knowing how long the ride would be, my grandmother and her grandparents traveled for days on a covered wagon to San Juan Pueblo. Once in San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owînge), she would be their errand girl to help around the house.

Soon after her arrival to San Juan Pueblo, my grandmother became part of the federal government’s “civilizing” efforts to place Indian children in boarding schools. She was sent to the Santa Fe Indian School - about 25 miles south of San Juan Pueblo. Back in the 1920s this was an entire day’s travel. Grandmother recalls vividly her time at the boarding school:

They gave us a bath right away when we got there and washed our hair. I don’t know how many years I got bathed by a big girl. There were two wash tubs side by side. We took turns and had to stand in line. Sometimes the girls would trade things to buy a place up front. We had a bath just once a week and it was the same water for everyone. We were so little we didn’t care who looked at us. I always remember being chapped. When we got through bathing, they [school matrons] would give us a hunk of Vaseline to put on our faces and hands so we won’t be so chapped. The towels we had were not towels like we have today but they were like brown paper towels. They didn’t dry good and felt like paper bags on our face. I guess that it why we were always chapped.

Grandmother graduated from the Albuquerque Indian School in 1930. Throughout the rest of her adult life, she dedicated herself to raising ten children and working in a multitude of service jobs in northern New Mexico. This varied from cooking and cleaning in Los Alamos to being a janitor at the local John F. Kennedy School in San Juan Pueblo. It was at this school that a linguist by the name of Randy Speirs approached her about documenting the Tewa language. At the time, grandmother was around 54 years old, and thus began her quest as an educator. She enrolled in several linguistic courses and was soon hired to teach Tewa at the San Juan Day School. She served as Tewa Instructor and Director of Bilingual Education for over twenty years. During her tenure at the Day School, grandmother published the San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary, various language curriculum guides and served as a consultant for language initiatives at other pueblos. In 1992 she published one of her favorite stories as a children’s storybook, The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote. The San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary has since been digitized into a CD-ROM for San Juan children to use in the classroom.

The contributions grandmother has made to the preservation of the Tewa language and culture has not gone unrecognized. A few of her honors include the National Association for Bilingual Education, Pioneer Award (1992), Living Treasure Award from the State of New Mexico (1996), Indian Education Award for Teacher of the Year from the National Council of American Indians, Woman of the Year Award (1997), New Mexico Arts Commission Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts (1998) and the Indigenous Language Institute Award for “Those Who Make a Difference” (1999). In addition, grandmother has been featured in documentaries such as KOB-TV 4 Cavalcade of Enchantment series on storytellers and writers of New Mexico, A String Story and Surviving Columbus.

Among Pueblo people Esther Martínez is best known as the San Juan Storyteller. She recently published My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martínez. An excerpt from the back cover reads:

My Life in San Juan Pueblo is a rich, rewarding, and uplifting collection of personal and cultural stories from a master of her craft. Esther Martínez’s tales brim with entertaining characters that embody her Native American Tewa culture and its wisdom about respect, kindness, and positive attitudes. Sure to bring a smile to readers of all ages, this enchanting glimpse of an oral tradition passed from grandfather to granddaughter also features a CD of the stories as told by Esther Martínez herself.

The American Folklore Society recently awarded My Life in San Juan Pueblo the Elli Köngäs-Maranda Prize (2004) and it continues to be used in many colleges and universities across the United States.

As an educator, matriarch, and community leader, learning to document the Tewa language and writing the stories of Pueblo people has remained a central part of my grandmother’s life. In 2005 at the age of 93, she continues to be consulted on various language and cultural initiatives.

Sources Used:

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen and Josephine Binford et al (Editors). My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martínez. University of Illinois Press, 2004

Martínez, Matthew J. “Blue Horses, Stuffed Squirrels & Trickster Tales”: Conversations with Linguist and Storyteller Esther Martínez, Paper presented at the American Society for Ethnohistory, Riverside, California, November 2003.

Various personal correspondence and taped recordings. In author’s possession.

Further Reading:

Hyer, Sally. One House, One Voice, One Heart: Native American Education at the Santa Fe Indian School. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen and Esther Martínez. “Traditional Story Telling at San Juan Pueblo” in Traditional Storytelling Today: An International Encyclopedia, edited by Margaret Read MacDonald. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen, Siri Tuttle and Esther Martínez, “Multimedia Technology in Language and Culture Restoration Efforts at San Juan Pueblo: A Brief History of the Development of the Tewa Language Project,” Wicazo Sa Review 13 (2): 45-58, 1998.

Martínez, Esther. The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1992.

----- San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary. Bishop Publishing, 1983.


“Storytellers-Writers of New Mexico” in Cavalcade of Enchantment series. KOB-TV 4, Vol. VII, 1996.

Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People. Diane Reyna, Director, 120 Minutes. KNME-TV, PBS Video, 1992.