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Obituaries

Esther Martinez, 94; Tewa Speaker Worked to Save Her Language

September 24, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

At a government-run boarding school for Indians in the 1920s, Esther Martinez was not allowed to speak Tewa, her native language. Nor could she listen to the kinds of traditional tales her grandfather told her.

The goal of the school was to assimilate Native Americans, and that meant leaving the past -- the stories and language -- behind. But Martinez never did.

The language and stories remained a part of her life. As an adult she became a teacher of the language and compiled a dictionary to help others learn it. And she became a storyteller, keeping alive the stories her grandfather passed down to her and creating her own.

"Esther has been a keeper of the language central to Pueblo expression and identity as well as a storyteller whose traditional tales both enlighten and entertain," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which on Sept. 14 honored Martinez as a 2006 National Heritage Fellow, the highest recognition in the folk and traditional arts.

Two days later Martinez was killed in a car accident caused by a driver suspected of being drunk. The accident occurred in Espanola, N.M., as she and her family returned home from the NEA ceremony, said Det. Sgt. Christian Lopez of the Espanola Police Department. She was 94.

Among those working to save native languages from extinction, Martinez was a well-known and beloved elder. Decades ago she helped lay the foundation for the current push to keep alive New Mexico's indigenous languages, an effort that is being replicated in native communities across the country.

"With each passing of a fluent speaker, we're not just losing a language," said Inee Yang Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. "We're losing a whole library of knowledge about their community, their history, their traditions. And all of this is all embedded in the language. There's something beyond language we're losing."

In Ohkay Owingeh, formerly known as San Juan Pueblo, Martinez was a living link to the community's past.

Also known as P'oe Tsawa, or Blue Water, Martinez was the third of eight children.

In Utah, where she was born in 1912 and spent the first five years of her life, Martinez spoke the Tewa language. At age 5 she traveled with her grandparents to New Mexico. San Juan Pueblo, she said, "is located near where the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande rivers come together. It is one of the eight Northern Indian pueblos and one of the six Tewa-speaking tribes."

Like other Indian youths in San Juan Pueblo, Martinez was sent about 25 miles away to the Santa Fe Indian School when she reached fifth grade. The schools, which started in the 1860s and were often run or sanctioned by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, sought to eradicate Native American culture and identity and to assimilate the children into the larger society.

At the Santa Fe boarding school, there was harsh punishment for speaking Tewa, Martinez recalled years later, and there was none of the storytelling that marked her years at home.

"I didn't like that at all," she said. "Nighttime is when it was lonely. When you go to bed, you have nice clean sheets waiting for you, a nice bed, but there's no grandfather, there's no grandma there to sit on their lap and listen to their stories."

The boarding school experience divorced generations of Native Americans from the languages of their parents and grandparents and played a major role in the decline of native languages in the U.S., Slaughter said.

"They were determined -- these people who were punished for being Indian, for speaking the language -- that their children and grandchildren would not go through that atrocity, so they did not teach the language," Slaughter said.

That was not true of Martinez. After graduating from high school she raised 10 children on an income earned from working as a janitor and other service jobs, and she taught her children the Tewa language.

Always she told stories, said grandson Matthew J. Martinez.

"She had a story for everything, whether she was sitting at the kitchen table or out fishing at the river, which she loved to do," Matthew Martinez said. "She would see the reflection of the sun on the water, and say, 'One time this happened' and just come up with a story."

Some stories were passed down to her, and others were her own creations. The stories often contained a moral or explained how a place got its name. "But sometimes it's just humor, entertainment.... She loved to laugh," Matthew Martinez said.

In one story Martinez told, Rabbit saves himself from being eaten by Coyote by tricking him. Rabbit tells Coyote he will give him a chunk of cheese. He points to the "cheese," a reflection of the moon on the water. Coyote grabs for the cheese and falls in; Rabbit is saved.

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