Ortiz, Alfonso

views updated

Alfonso Ortiz

Native American scholar, anthropologist and activist Alfonso Ortiz (1939–1997) was unique in the realm of academia as a Pueblo Indian whose primary field of study was his own people. This perspective was first demonstrated in his 1969 book The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society, and was highly praised by Ortiz's fellow anthropologists, although not so well received within in his own culture at the time. The noted scholar was also recognized for his tireless activism on behalf of Native Americans, in general, and contributions to society at large.

Influenced and Educated

Ortiz was born on April 30, 1939, to Sam and Lupe (Naranjo) Ortiz, in San Juan Pueblo in northern New Mexico. His father was Native American (Pueblo) and his mother was Hispanic. The Pueblos, of which Ortiz was a member, spoke Tewa, one of the three Kiowa-Tanoan languages of New Mexican Pueblos (there is also one Tewa-speaking group in Arizona). Ortiz, who was reared by his grandparents, well remembered the importance that was placed on knowing his native tongue. He recalled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that his grandmother "taught me that if I couldn't explain what I was doing in the Tewa language, it probably wasn't worth doing."

Although he grew up poor, Ortiz remembered his childhood with fondness. On the website Living Treasure of Santa Fe he recalled, "I was roused at 4 AM. by my grandfather to go to the fields, to irrigate and transplant. During the hottest hours, the boys went swimming in the Rio Grande, then, it was back to the fields. It was a life of hard work, discipline, activity, and lots of fun." Those early lessons in tenacity and self-control paid off when the young Ortiz decided to buck the family tradition of religious service in order to pursue an academic career. But the influence and pull of his cultural roots remained with him for years to come.

After graduating from high school in Espanola, New Mexico, Ortiz studied sociology at the University of New Mexico and was awarded his degree in 1961. That same year he was married to Margaret Davisson, with whom he eventually had three children. He briefly considered a legal career, but chose instead to pursue a master's degree in Indian education at Arizona State University. That venture was also short-lived, as Ortiz's mentor, anthropologist Edward Dozier, persuaded the young scholar to broaden his perspective by continuing his education farther from home. Ortiz did so at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in 1963 and a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1967. Thus armed with stellar credentials, he was poised to make his mark on academia.

Wrote a Book on Pueblos

Ortiz's scholarly talents had not gone unnoticed while he was still in school. His master's thesis, for instance, had earned him the Roy D. Albert Prize for Outstanding Thesis in 1964. So it was not, perhaps, surprising that his first book was born of his doctoral dissertation. That work, published in 1969 by the University of Chicago Press, was called The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society. A pioneering exploration of the very society in which Ortiz had grown up, the book gave a unique anthropological insight into that culture's inner workings. The book was widely acclaimed in academic circles, assuring Ortiz's position as a respected scholar, but its reception among his own people was something less than welcoming.

As late as 2005, there remained debate among Tewa speakers as to whether their language should exist in written form or be preserved solely through oral tradition. And although by that time many had decided that the written word was an acceptable way to pass on their language, the discussion had not progressed that far in the late 1960s. Further, the New Mexican Pueblos had long been reticent about sharing their culture with outsiders, and Ortiz's book was seen as violating this code. Although he maintained that he had only put existing knowledge into a coherent form, as opposed to revealing any secrets, Ortiz found himself suddenly ostracized by some of his own. However, time passed, and recognition from others eventually worked its magic on the situation.

Famed Academic and Activist

Ortiz began his teaching career at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, in 1966. After a year there, he joined the faculty at Princeton University, where he stayed until 1974. During his tenure in the Ivy League, Ortiz's academic reputation increased and he became a sought-after speaker, as well as a consultant for such entities as the Xerox Corporation, the John Hay Whitney Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. He also began his long-term activism on behalf of Native Americans, aligning himself with such public service groups as the National Advisory Council of the National Indian Youth Council (member from 1972–1990) and the Association on American Indian Affairs, Inc. (AAIA; president from 1973–1988). In addition, Ortiz continued his research and writing. Indian Voices: Proceedings of the 1st Convocation of American Indian Scholars was published in 1970, and New Perspectives on the Pueblos was published in 1972. Celebrated as both a scholar and an activist, Ortiz decided to head back to his native state, where he accepted a professorship at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in 1974. He remained there for the rest of his exceptional career.

At UNM, Ortiz was a popular teacher who took special pride in mentoring young Native American students. Former colleague Joe Sando told Paul Logan of the Albuquerque Journal, "He was outgoing, very easy, friendly, very articulate. Many students came to UNM because of his name." Richard Erdoes, his collaborator on two books, described Ortiz to David Steinberg of the same newspaper as "a very jolly man, a wonderful friend who had a great sense of humor and was a great scholar, but who didn't put on any airs if you wanted to talk to him." Indeed, Ortiz's compelling, yet slightly whimsical, personality reminded many of the famous coyote of Pueblo folk legend—a trickster who takes pleasure in disturbing the status quo.

Ortiz was certainly not content with the world as it was and he continued his efforts on behalf of Native Americans. As president of the AAIA, Ortiz was instrumental in obtaining such benchmark accomplishments as the reclamation of the Taos Pueblo people's sacred Blue Lake, the assessment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and Congress's passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Other activities included membership in the Native American Rights Fund and chairmanship of the advisory board of the D'Arcy McNickle Center for the Study of the History of the American Indian at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Indisputably, Ortiz was a tireless crusader for his people, but he did not stop there. He was equally willing to lend his time to more wide-reaching causes, from the rights of uranium miners to religious freedom.

Ortiz's scholarly work remained superior and noteworthy. He wrote more than 60 essays and articles, and edited, compiled or wrote several more books. The latter included editing two volumes of the Smithsonian Institution's Handbook of American Indians (1979 and 1983). His works and editing ventures also included American Indian Myths and Legends (1984), North American Indian Anthropology: Essays on Society and Culture (1994), The Pueblo (1994), and American Indian Trickster Tales (published posthumously, in 1998). In his researches, Ortiz continued to examine his culture of origin with an insight, fondness, and respect that completely set his work apart. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted him saying as a young man, "This country has honored too long the war chiefs. There is also a tradition of peace chiefs who deserve to be memorialized and honored." Ortiz did his best to make sure that was so.

Honored and Remembered

Despite ongoing unease among some Pueblo elders, Ortiz's work by no means went unnoticed or unappreciated. In 1975 he was named a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The year 1982 saw him being honored with the Indian Achievement Award from the Indian Council Fire of Chicago for his contributions to the area of Native American studies. That same year Ortiz was awarded a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship—the so-called "genius grant."

In the 1990s Ortiz's health began to suffer, eventually forcing him to take medical leave from UNM. He had appeared to be on the mend, however, when he died unexpectedly from heart failure on January 27, 1997, at the age of 57. "The university is very much impoverished by this loss," UNM's anthropology department chair Marta Weigle told Patricia Guthrie and Ollie Reed Jr. of the Albuquerque Tribune. "It's hard to imagine how we'll replace him." San Juan Pueblo Governor Joe Garcia acknowledged the past to the same reporters, while recognizing Ortiz's accomplishments at the same time. "There has been some friction because of some of the things he printed," said Garcia. "But, in the Indian way, there was forgiveness…. This is a great loss to the Indian community. There was a lot of knowledge and wisdom in that man." Erdoes also commented on this friction and redemption to Steinberg. "There were two ceremonies, one Catholic and one traditionally Indian, at San Juan Pueblo, and after the ceremonies his soul was released. The elders came together and forgave him for having written books of the Tewa world." Ortiz's son, Nico, described his father's legacy most succinctly when he told Tom Sharpe of the Albuquerque Journal, "At the time he went to college and got his Ph.D., there were only a handful of Native American scholars, and he was a trailblazer for them to show it could be done. I think that he'd want to be remembered as somebody who made a difference in the world—someone whose achievements left the world a better place."

Ortiz was remembered in many ways for many reasons. Among the most tangible of these was the opening of the Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies at UNM in October of 2000. One of the center's prime directives was to help eliminate barriers between the university and the community by providing a forum for professional anthropologists to interact with laypersons. As a longtime proponent of the demystification of academic institutions via the inclusion of informal scholars from the surrounding community, Ortiz could only have been pleased by the new center that bore his name. This center, set alongside a career of prodigious academic and societal contributions, were all a long way from Ortiz's humble beginnings in the fields. Or perhaps, after all, they were not.


Notable Native Americans, Gale Research, 1995.


Albuquerque Journal, January 30, 1997; January 31, 1997; February 1, 1997; April 26, 1998; December 4, 1999; October 7, 2000.

Albuquerque Tribune, January 29, 1997.

Rocky Mountain News, January 31, 1997.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 5, 1997.

Time, February 10, 1997.


"Alfonso Ortiz," Living Treasures of Santa Fe, http://www.livingtreasures.kxx.com/bios/alfos.html (January 15, 2006).

"Alfonso Alex Ortiz," Native American Authors Project, Internet Public Library, http://www.ipl.org/div/natam/bin/browse.pl/A70 (January 15, 2006).

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006, Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006.

"Dr. Alfonso Ortiz," Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, http://www.unm.edu/∼ortizctr/dr_ortiz.html (January 15, 2006).

"Tewa Indian Pueblos," Access Genealogy, http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/newmexico/tewaindianhist.htm (January 18, 2006).

"Tewa Language (Tano, Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Tesuque)," Native American Languages, http://www.native-languages.org/tewa.htm (January 18, 2006).

About this article

Ortiz, Alfonso

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article