Luce Fellow Spotlight: Tessie Naranjo

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a third year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. Beginning in 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 over two years to support fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations. In 2022, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $75,000 fellowships.


When Tessie Naranjo asked her mother what the most important thing in life was, she answered simply, “Children.”

Tessie Naranjo, an elder in the Pueblo of Santa Clara in New Mexico, has dedicated her life to preserving the Tewa language.

Naranjo, now an elder herself and a respected leader in the Pueblo of Santa Clara in New Mexico, concurs. “I am now profoundly aware of my mother’s answer because I have learned that it is about the children. It is about passing on our cultural knowledge to the next generation. It is about them growing up to become adults and leaders of the community. They need to know the language and the stories that tell us what it means to be a good Tewa person.”

Naranjo has spoken Tewa all her life and learned English as a second language. She and her 10 brothers and sisters grew up hearing stories regularly in their Native language from her great-grandmother. “There was no electricity in the Pueblo. So we did a lot of storytelling.” Unfortunately, the storytelling sessions stopped when her great-grandmother died.

In fact, a survey conducted in 2002 revealed that less than 3% of Santa Clara children are fluent in Tewa. A similar concern of language-loss in children carries over into the other five Tewa Pueblos, according to Naranjo.

“I am concerned about the loss of our language, especially when I see that Tewa youth are more comfortable speaking English than speaking Tewa,” she says sadly, but with resolute conviction to turn that concerning trend around.

It is her dedication to preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture and the Tewa language for which Naranjo has won a First Nations’ Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship for the 2022 cohort.

Mark D. Varien, executive vice president of the Research Institute at Crow Canyon, has worked with Naranjo on various research and education projects for over 30 years. In his letter of recommendation for Naranjo’s fellowship, he says: “Tessie is one of the world’s leading experts on Pueblo culture and she has produced a lifetime of notable achievements in the fields of cultural preservation, education, sociology, history/archaeology, linguistics, and community activism. Each of her projects serves the needs of her Santa Clara and larger Pueblo community, and they go beyond to benefit all of humanity.”

Her Tewa language work for children

Through the Luce fellowship, Naranjo is creating a children’s book called “Tewa Children’s Book of Stories.” It is a collection of stories, verses, and songs published in the Tewa language, with English translations, and intended for ONLY Tewa communities.

Naranjo’s niece and sister place bread in an outdoor oven.

“In order for us to survive and move forward as special Tewa communities, we need it for ourselves. It is what I have long wanted, and it is my way of giving back to my people,” explains the Luce fellow.

The book will retell stories and songs that Santa Clara elders recall from their childhood that teach Tewa values and ways of life, such as the story of a little rabbit who got caught stealing a watermelon. The Tewa lesson to children? Do not take what is not yours.

A digital recording will accompany each story to teach students the unique tone and rhythm of the Tewa language.

Naranjo emphasizes that her work during the fellowship period is about working collectively, just as her people did long ago. “Once upon a time, we were a people who thought and behaved collectively, and we still do to a certain extent. But back then, we had more shared values. We relied on each other.” In contrast, she says people in modern times have become “more individual in their mindsets.”

True to these traditional values, Naranjo’s children’s book project is a collaborative effort of storytellers, artists, editors, and a publisher. “The color illustrations are just outstanding!” she says.

The book will be published by the Canelo Project, a Tewa publishing company, and will be available to all the Tewa Pueblos: Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh, Tesuque, Nambé, and Pojoaque, through Tewa day schools, a tribal museum, and select Tewa community organizations.

As outlined in Naranjo’s fellowship application, “The book will provide much-needed encouragement to Tewa language learners of all ages. People who are in the process of learning Tewa often describe feeling embarrassed or self-conscious. This book will serve as a tool to bring Tewa language learners together, so that we may help each other and develop confidence in the process.”

Varien says that Naranjo’s book will provide a critical resource for the perpetuation of Pueblo culture in the face of modern-day challenges. “Maintaining the Tewa language represents one of the most important means of preserving Tewa culture and identity.”

A lifetime committed to Pueblo culture

Everything Naranjo has accomplished in her life has contributed to the prosperity and preservation of the Pueblo community in some way.

Naranjo’s sisters and nieces gather around the table to enjoy freshly bread baked and jam.

One noteworthy accomplishment is that she received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of New Mexico ─ one of few women from the Pueblo of Santa Clara to hold a doctorate degree.

For five years, Naranjo was co-director of the Northern Pueblos Institute at Northern New Mexico College in Española, where she and a colleague established undergraduate degrees in Pueblo Indian Studies to help Pueblo college students learn more about their culture and connect with their communities.

What’s more, this highly respected Pueblo elder was tapped by the governor of Santa Clara Pueblo to be the chairperson on the Review Committee for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Throughout her lifetime, Naranjo has served as a cultural consultant to many Native museums and institutions, including the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Poeh Tribal Museum, Pojoaque Pueblo, New Mexico.

She has also written and edited numerous publications on Tewa language, memory, and philosophy, including a collaborative book on the Tewa language called, “Khap’on Tewa Verbs and Pronouns.”

Recently, Naranjo was part of a successful effort to relocate 100 ancestral Tewa pots from the Smithsonian Institution to the Poeh Cultural Center of Pojoaque Pueblo. This “long-term loan” from the world’s largest museum will help educate and inform Tewa artists.

During the pandemic, Naranjo continued to teach weekly Tewa classes to Tewa individuals only via Zoom and on the telephone. Before and post-COVID, she often speaks, when invited, to students in Native schools, such as the Santa Fe Indian School. “Any chance that I get to speak to young adults or grade-school kids, I accept because it is an opportunity for me to pass on what I know.”

She says that giving back to her community is “just who I am.”

Thank you to First Nations

Naranjo loves to garden and grows a variety of vegetables that she shares with family and friends.

Naranjo is grateful to her nephew who encouraged her to apply for a Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. “When I got the announcement of my selection as a fellow, I was shocked and in disbelief,” she recalls tearfully. “I had a great feeling of gratitude, a great amount of joy.”

She appreciates that First Nations has acknowledged what she has been doing voluntarily for many years. “I volunteer simply because it is in my heart to do so.”

Another passion of Naranjo’s is growing vegetables in her 17-row garden. “Corn, beans, squash, carrots, anything!” she says. Currently, she is drying corn to make a favorite Pueblo dish, Winter Corn Soup.

Whether Naranjo is teaching Tewa, writing a children’s book, volunteering, or gardening, her passion comes from the same place. “I want us to remember the values that brought us together, that bound us together. I want us to be conscious of the fact that there is relationship with all things, not only with humans, but with animals and our landscape.”

She concludes with emphasis, “What I REALLY, REALLY care about is that we do not forget who we are, even as we live in this modern day and age.”