Image: Esther Martinez
Esther Martinez of Ohkay Owingeh, N.M., receives the 2006 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award from Chairman Dana Gioia, right, and U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, left, D-N.M., in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
updated 9/18/2006 9:43:51 AM ET 2006-09-18T13:43:51

Esther Martinez, a Tewa storyteller and linguist who worked to preserve her native tongue, was killed in a traffic accident on her way home from accepting the nation's highest honor for folk artists, her grandson said Sunday. She was 94.

The car carrying Martinez, of Ohkay Owingeh, N.M., was hit Saturday night in Espanola on its way from Santa Fe, where she had flown after attending a National Endowment for the Arts celebration in Washington, D.C., Matthew J. Martinez said. Two daughters with her, Josephine Binford and Marie Sanchez, were injured but recovering.

"She was a pillar in our community," Matthew Martinez said. "She embodied what it meant to be a Tewa person and lived it and practiced it and served as a role model."

Details on the accident were not available Sunday night.

Martinez was honored along with 11 other folk and traditional artists as a 2006 National Heritage Fellow, the NEA said in a news release. The fellowship includes an award of $20,000.

She received a standing ovation in the nation's capital for her stories and life's work preserving her native Tewa language and traditions, the release said.

"To lose a national treasure as beloved as Esther Martinez in such a senseless manner is truly tragic," NEA chairman Dana Gioia said. "New Mexico and the entire country have lost an eloquent link to our past. We can find solace in remembering her lifelong commitment to keeping her culture alive and vibrant."

The Tewa are a linguistically related American Indian people who live in seven communities, or pueblos, one in Arizona and six in New Mexico.

Martinez was born and raised in northern New Mexico, the NEA said in a biography. Her American Indian name is P'oe Tswa, or Blue Water, but she was known by many as Ko'oe Esther, or Aunt Esther.

She spent much of her childhood living with her grandparents and visited her parents by traveling in a covered wagon.

She was a major conservator of the Tewa language, teaching her native tongue from 1974 to 1989 at schools in Ohkay Owingeh, formerly known as San Juan Pueblo.

She also helped translate the New Testament of the Bible into Tewa and compiled Tewa dictionaries for pueblos, which have distinct dialects, the NEA said.

Since 1988, Martinez told her stories in English to non-Tewa audiences through Storytelling International.

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