2017 Taos Living Treasures: Joe D. Martinez

Firefighter, pueblo leader strives to pass traditions on to next generation


Joe. D. Martinez, a former wildland firefighter, tribal official and community leader from Picuris Pueblo, has been selected as an honoree of the Taos Living Treasures program.

Martinez's early life saw him both leading his community, the smallest pueblo in New Mexico, and fending for himself in the whailds of urban Los Angeles, California.

Not long after turning 18 or so, Martinez served as third war chief for the tribe - the first of eight positions within the tribal government he's held.

But within a few years, Martinez moved to L.A. to learn welding as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' relocation program. It was 1968, and tens of thousands of American Indians had moved to big cities.

Elders at Picuris gave Martinez, who at that point mostly spoke his tribe's Tiwa language, advice for navigating the world on his first trip far from the pueblo. It boiled down to two simple tenets: Take care of yourself and behave.

It was guidance he took to heart, Martinez said, when thrown into the "adrenaline" of city life.

Martinez eventually moved back to Picuris. There, he married his wife, Mary Ann, and had two sons, Luther and Waylon.

It was then Martinez began his professional life in forests, from the piñón-juniper hills of Picuris to the depths of the Rocky Mountains to the Florida Everglades. Martinez held jobs with the state's forestry program, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, where he was a wildland firefighter - a Hotshot, no less - for about 15 years, he said.

"That was a hard job sometimes ... being away from the boys," Martinez said.

The 1985 Butte Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest of Idaho, he remembers, was punctuated with a scary few hours as the fire raced toward a hundred firefighters on a ridge. He was among the crews hunkering under a shelter for more than an hour and a half as the fire burned over his head, he said.

But that wasn't scary enough to drive him away from fire. When not out on assignment, Martinez volunteered to pass the hours in the Picuris fire lookout tower. He also went on to educate young people, in the BIA and his own kids, in the skills of wildlands firefighting.

Luther Martinez has managed the forestry program for Picuris since 2004. It was his father who taught him the skills he's relied on throughout his career, he told The Taos News.

"Pretty much as soon as I was strong enough to hold up a chainsaw, he was showing me how to run it," he said.

His brother, Waylon Martinez, oversees the tribe's five dozen bison.

"He's been real supportive in what we're doing," Luther Martinez said. "He shares his knowledge for everything - traditional practices, along with every other experience he has with firefighting, communication and leadership. He's not stingy with his knowledge."

Indeed, ensuring young folks have the know-how of traditional doings and life skills is paramount to much Joe Martinez does in his community. He served as governor in 2012 and first war chief in 2013, but turned down the last offer to help run the government simply because, he said, "Kids need to learn how to do it."

It's a wish he extends beyond the tribal government.

"I'd like for the traditions to keep going," he said.