Dr. Inés Maria Talamantez: Biography of A Founder of the Study of Native American Religious Traditions

By Emily Grace Brolaski

The biography below is written by the granddaughter of Inés Maria Talamantez, Emily Grace Brolaski. Brolaski interviewed her grandmother in Santa Barbara, CA, on May 5, 2018 and October 28, 2018, and has also been writing about Talamantez’s life as part of her doctoral work.


Inés Maria Talamantez (Mescalero Apache, Lipan Apache, and Chicana) was Professor of Native American Religious Traditions at University of California, Santa Barbara. During her forty years at the university, she developed the field of Native American Religious Studies, trained over thirty doctoral students and mentored countless others. She was an activist, a poet, a dancer, a teacher, and a mother to more than just her own kin. She was an activist from a young age, and fought for diversity, peace, and equal rights in and outside of academia. She passed away in September 2019, one month shy of her 89th birthday.

Inés was born on October 31, 1930 in Old Mesilla, New Mexico, the same birthplace as her parents and paternal grandfather. She was the oldest of Clara and Juan Talamantez’s four children. Clara Martinez Talamantez was born in 1899 and was of Lipan Apache and Spanish descent. Clara and her younger sister Carmen were both “taken from the [Mescalero] Reservation in 1905,” to be raised in the Loretto Academy of the Visitation, a convent-type educational institution in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Academy took in Native and Mexican girls and young women, banned them from speaking their Indigenous languages, and taught them an assimilationist curriculum. Clara lived at the convent, and attended classes until the sixth grade, continuing to work in the kitchen for her room and board until she was twenty.

Inés’s father, Juan Talamantez, born in 1898 was Mescalero and Lipan Apache, however, did not live on the Mescalero Reservation because his father chose not to formally enroll- “he didn’t believe that the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] should tell him how to live his life, or define who he was.” He and his father did agricultural work, and Juan was responsible for delivering bread and other food to the Loretto Academy. Juan and Clara struck up a friendly relationship, and after three years Juan convinced Clara to run away with him. He said, “Clara, I’ve been in love with you for three years, and I really want to marry you.” So they made a plan to elope, and on a summer night in the mid 1920s, Juan rode on horseback to whisk her away to get married.

As a result of losing their land during the Great Depression, the Talamantez family moved from Old Mesilla, New Mexico to San Bernardino, California in 1932, where they found jobs as migrant farmworkers. When Inés was old enough, she picked grapes and walnuts in the fields with her parents. They traveled around the Inland Empire migrating for work and living in tent communities for several years before renting a home in San Bernardino.

In 1937, the Talamantezes received a visit from a San Bernardino City Unified School District official informing them to enroll Inés in kindergarten. “They had heard about … schools for Indian education” and the violence and trauma experienced by Native children at off-reservation American Indian boarding schools, and they were fearful of sending Inés and her siblings to school. Similar to Clara’s experience at the Loretto Academy, these assimilationist institutions banned children from speaking their Indigenous languages and practicing their religious traditions. As Captain Richard Pratt famously said, the Indian boarding schools aimed to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” through forced assimilation and Americanization. “They were protecting me,” Talamantez said, “they didn’t want to send me to school, because they thought [the government] might steal me and send me to one of those Indian schools.”

When her parents learned from the district official that the law required children to attend school until the eighth grade, Juan and Clara had no choice but to enroll Inés in kindergarten-she was seven years old. Inés only spoke Spanish and Apache when she started school, and since she did not speak English, the teacher made her sit in the back of the classroom. In the fourth grade, during “a unit on transportation, … the teacher put paper all around” the room with pictures of “cavemen pushing a stone, and … the whole history of transportation to jet airplanes.” Still sitting in the back of the classroom, Inés was listening to the lesson and looking at all the photos around the room. And, then she realized, “oh, I understand everything she’s saying, except a few words,” and “I can say it too!”

Inés raised her hand, stood up at her desk, and exclaimed “teacher, teacher! I speak English now!” She gathered her notebooks and went to sit in the front row of the classroom. The teacher was not pleased about the outburst and voluntary move to the front of the class, and wrote a disciplinary note for Inés to take home to her parents. Talamantez explained what happened and told her father that she understood English now, and Juan praised Inés rather than scolded her.

As soon as she could read and write in English, she became an activist using the skill as a tool to help her community. Her father Juan would invite his coworkers and friends to the house, brew a pot of coffee, and they would chat at the kitchen table, “then he’d say ‘mija help them. This is the form, help them fill this out.’” So, she sat at the table, and translated from English to Spanish and then from Spanish to English to fill out union membership forms, social security forms, welfare forms and other documents for her Spanish speaking neighbors. From her father’s example, she learned the importance of lifting up one’s own community, and she continued this work throughout her life and career.

My grandmother told me that she has “been a little bit of a radical” all her life. She explained that the more she figured things out, the more radical she became.

Talamantez attended San Diego State University after graduating from Point Loma High School in 1950. Before finishing her Bachelor of Arts in Dance, she married my grandfather George R. Brolaski in 1953, and took a long break from school to raise her seven children. Fifteen years later, as a newly divorced single mother she decided to go back to college. After having seven children she felt she could no longer dance the way she used to, so she changed her major from Dance to Spanish Literature and transferred to the University of California, San Diego. She explained that she wanted to know about the Spanish, because of her Spanish ancestry from her maternal grandmother. She remembered it was, “just the time when they were starting Native American studies, Chican[a/]o studies…” and Black studies at the University. “There was a big thing about diversity and racism,” and she knew that she wanted to be a part of the movement. This was also when she met and fell in love with her second husband Vernon Kjonegaard.

Inés’s second oldest son Mark Brolaski, asked “‘Mom, remember when we used to wear bandanas and a bunch of badges? And, we would go to these meetings with you and sit in the back of the room doing our homework, and you would be up there talking?” He asked, “what were those meetings, Mom?” Talamantez brought her seven children to meetings organizing protests at UCSD fighting for the Lumumba-Zapata College (Third College), to American Indian Movement (AIM) meetings, and to peace marches in San Diego throughout the 1960s and 1970s. She could not afford a babysitter, and she also wanted to teach her children that they could use their voices to stand up for their community and initiate political change.

Beginning her formal education at the age of seven might have indicated that she would fall behind her peers and not be successful in school. However, the opposite was true. Although she experienced setbacks, such as language barriers, teasing about her farmworker status, and racism at school, she still found a way to excel. Everyday of middle school, morning and evening, she took three buses from Midway Frontier public housing to Memorial Junior High School. She was determined to finish. In middle school she became homeroom secretary, and in high school she joined the debate team, the Majorettes dance team, and became an editor for Harbor Lights, the school newspaper. Her middle school homeroom teacher, Mrs. Meers took her under her wing, and told her “‘You’re a really smart girl, don’t get married. Don’t be silly. Just go to college.’” My grandmother gave this same advice to me a few years ago.

Before graduating with her bachelor’s degree, another mentor of hers encouraged her to apply for graduate school. Dr. Carlos Blanco Aguinaga even had a nickname for her, “Chicindia,” because she is both Chicana and American Indian. Before graduation he asked her, “What are you going to do now?” She told him “I can’t go to grad school because I don’t have money, and I have seven kids.” He told “Chicindia” about the Ford Foundation Fellowship program. She applied and received five years of funding for her PhD in Ethnopoetics and Comparative Literature at UCSD. She earned two Postdoctoral Fellowships at the Divinity School at Harvard University, and joined the faculty at Dartmouth College briefly before returning to the West Coast in 1978 to develop the field of Native American Religious Traditions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

It was during her doctoral study in the 1970s when she started her work with Apache Medicine Man Willeto Antonio on the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico. Although our family was never enrolled formally in the tribe, this was our home, our people. Growing up far from the reservation, meant feeling disconnected from our culture. So, when Inés got to graduate school and then became a professor, she used her fellowship, grants, and salary as resources to travel home to Mescalero to relearn our Indigenous language and traditions, which was also the focus of her research.

Dr. Talamantez’s main area of interest for her academic work was the Mescalero Apache eight day girl’s rite of passage ceremony. In her dissertation, titled “Ethnopoetics Theory and Method A Study of ‘Isanaklesde Gotal,” she analyzed the songs and chants that are used in ceremony that guide the Apache girl’s transformation into ‘Isanaklesh and then into a woman. Talamantez’s manuscript on the ceremony is forthcoming. Maria Catalina, Inés’ oldest daughter, was her research assistant, and drove her to the reservation each summer to participate in the ceremonies. Talamantez worked collaboratively and formed lasting relationships with Antonio and other Apache Elders on the reservation. Even in her later years, she still felt that she had more to learn, and believed it should be cultivated through these relationships.

She is credited with developing Native American Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara and is considered an authority in the field, yet she proclaimed she was not an expert. She recognized, and taught her students too, that knowledge is a gift and that you can never truly claim to know everything.

She wrote that knowledge “is embedded in relationships, intimately tied to place, and entails responsibilities to others and a commitment and discipline in learning.”

Perhaps her refusal to claim expertise was one of the reasons she had been denied promotions at the university. She was only promoted to Full Professor in 2019, a few months before she passed away. She not only struggled to be taken seriously herself as a scholar but struggled within the Religious Studies Department to have Native American Religious Traditions acknowledged as a serious academic field. She loved her profession and many of her colleagues in the department, yet expressed many times that some of her colleagues just didn’t get it. They failed to acknowledge Native American Religion as religion, and they thought “Native American religions are dead.” But her students, many of them Indigenous and Chicanx did get it, so she focused her energy on decolonizing her field and creating Indigenous spaces in the university for her students.

Around 30 of her mentee “doctoral students have received their degrees in the field of Religious Studies with a special concentration in Native American Religious Traditions.” At the university she became auntie and mentor for Chicanax, Native American, and minority students. She had always been an activist focused on uplifting and supporting her community, and she continued this type of work throughout her career. “As a Chicana and Native woman,” she “was very much aware of the obstacles in higher education for women of color.” Mentoring both graduate and undergraduate students, and fostering Indigenous spaces was her way of empowering her community. It was her way of decolonizing the university.

Inés is survived by her younger brothers John and Lawrence “Lencho,” by her husband Vernon Kjonegaard, her seven children Chris, Maria, Mark, Jennifer, George, Timothy, and Elizabeth, eleven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. And, of course she is also survived by her countless best friends, students, and loved ones.



Inés M. Talamantez, “Ethnopoetics Theory and Method A Study of ‘Isanaklesde Gotal” (PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 1976). Talamantez’s manuscript on ‘Isanaklesde Gotal is forthcoming.

Inés Maria Talamantez, “Seeing Red: American Indian Women Speaking About Their Religious and Political Perspectives,” in In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing, ed. Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 386.

Maria Catalina Talamantez, interview by author, January 10, 2020.

Wendy C. Simpson. “The Sisters of Loretto In Las Cruces: The Education of A Frontier Community, 1870-1943,” La Crónica de Nuevo México, 47 (Santa Fe, NM) May 1998.

Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–271. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4929.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 2nd Edition (London: Zed Books, 2012).

American Academy of Religion, Member Spotlight: Inés Talamantez. https://www.aarweb.org/member-spotlight-inés-talamantez)


Emily Grace Brolaski is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of California, Riverside. She has a B.A. in History with a minor in American Indian and Indigenous Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Much like her grandmother, her research interests stem from her identity as a mixed-race woman of Apache descent. Put broadly, her research focuses on Native American history, especially regarding women’s roles in resistance and activism in the 20th century.