Esther Martinez was born in Ignacio, California, where her parents had gone to do farm work. She was raised by her grandparents in San Juan Pueblo (now called Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo), New Mexico, and often traveled by covered wagon to see her parents. She and other American Indian children were sent to a government boarding school twenty-five miles away, where they were punished harshly if caught speaking their native languages.
Martinez, also known by her American Indian name, P’oe Tsawa, or Blue Water, graduated from the Albuquerque Indian School in 1930. She married and spent the next three decades raising 10 children and working at various jobs, cooking and cleaning, to support them. When Martinez was 54, she was working at the John F. Kennedy School in San Juan Pueblo when a linguist approached her about documenting the Tewa tongue. Soon she was teaching in a day school. From 1974-89, she taught the language at schools in San Juan Pueblo. She helped translate the New Testament into Tewa and compiled dictionaries of the various dialects.
In 1988, Martinez began telling her stories in English to non-Tewa audiences through Storytelling International. She often introduced herself by saying that she was born in 1912, the year New Mexico became a state and the Titanic sank. She was revered in her community and was known by many as Ko’oe Esther, or Aunt Esther. She was honored with New Mexico's Living Treasures Award, the National Association for Bilingual Education's Pioneer Award, the New Mexico Arts Commission’s Governor's Award for Excellence and the 1997 Teacher of the Year Award from the National Council of American Indians.
Martinez wrote two books, The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote and My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez. In the latter, 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."
Johnson, Jeannie. “Two Work Toward Saving Native Land.” The New Mexico Sunday Journal (partial citation).
Martinez, Esther, et al. My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.)
Martinez, Estefanita (Esther). The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote: A Tewa Story from San Juan Pueblo (Adventures in Storytelling). (Chicago: Childrens Press, 1992.)
“San Juan Storyteller to Perform at Story Festival.” Rio Grande Sun (February 18, 1999.)
“Speaking of Tradition.” The New Mexican (October 2, 1999.)
Esther Martinez, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, interview by Nicholas R. Spitzer and Esther's grandson Matthew J. Martinez, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Esther Martinez performs a Native American lullaby, Bethesda, Maryland 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Esther Martinez's daughter Josephine Binford answers the question 'Are you going to continue your mother's tradition of storytelling?' Bethesda, Maryland 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Esther Martinez's daughter Josephine Binford answers the question 'What keeps your mother going?' Bethesda, Maryland 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Esther Martinez's daughter Josephine Binford explains the hardships of Native American life, Bethesda, Maryland 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Esther Martinez's daughter Josephine Binford answers the question 'Did your mother tell you stories growing up?' Bethesda, Maryland 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Esther Martinez, 'Little Black Ants And Coyote,' My Life in San Juan Pueblo: Stories of Esther Martinez, University of Illinois Press, 2004