A discussion with Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis on the traumas of the Native American boarding school experience


By Hoku Gearheard, Taylor Thomas, Angela Yu, Ifrah Issack, Jalil Shoa, and Zachary Louie, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

Photo: Washington State Courts – Supreme Court Bios – Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis

Content Warning: The following contains topics that may be triggering to trauma survivors and includes stories of child abuse, genocide, imprisonment, and death.

Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, the first Native American to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court, called in from her home in Olympia, a judge’s bench and courtroom set as her background, to talk with us about the impact of Native boarding schools on her community.  She wore a green shirt with a matching green stone necklace and a pale green shawl draped over her shoulders. Her black hair was swept off her face and held in place with a fabric headband. She began to speak, then vanished from the screen, disappearing into the virtual background. 

“My dog was trying to eat a piece of paper,” we heard her say with a laugh, and she reappeared into frame. She stroked the furry head of a large golden retriever named Niko and smiled warmly. She seemed quiet and calm, with a composed elegance. Her very presence for the interview garnered a lot of attention to our online class session. Included in the Zoom audience were Kitsap County Municipal Judge Tracy Flood, Judge Lisa Mansfield of Lakewood Municipal Court, Becky Bay, medical director of Binnacle Psychiatry and former NAMI Washington Board member, and Washington State Supreme Court clerk Laura Anglin.

A profoundly painful part of the Native American identity are the scars of the industrial boarding school era and the atrocities inflicted on Native children by government institutional care facilities. The Native boarding school project began in the sixteenth century as an attempt by Catholic missionaries to eradicate Native children. By the 1800s, the United States federal government took a more aggressive approach they crudely referred to as an “experiment” whose ultimate goal was to erase Native culture completely. This government plan of cultural cleansing centered around their deliberate destruction of the link between Native children and their families and culture. They physically removed children from their homes, some as young as four years old, and sent them to live at boarding schools intentionally located as far away from the children’s families as possible. The children remained there until the government considered them cured of their Native culture, and in essence, once they had successfully erased themselves. Only then were they allowed to leave the boarding school and return to their families. 

We were honored to have Justice Montoya-Lewis share her thoughts on this dark part of America’s history. 


Can you comment on the scars of the Native American boarding school systems? 

ML:…[I]t is something that is a profound and fundamental part of my family’s life as well as my community’s experience, as well as the experience of all of the tribes that I’ve worked with over the course of my career and yet I find that when I’m in public environments, and I talk about the boarding school experience and the damage it’s created, and the trauma it’s created for Native communities, it is actually fairly rare for people to have heard of it. Because it’s such a fundamental part of the stories I grew up with there’s a big disconnect there, and it’s another example I think of the way that Native communities have been made to be invisible, and silenced.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879, was the first off reservation boarding school to house Native American children. It was located in Pennsylvania, and is estimated to have held more than 12,000 children over its 39 years in operation. It was the model for hundreds of similar schools across the United States where their goal was to remove, kill, or force assimilation. 

ML: My great-grandmother was sent to Carlisle Boarding School…[S]he absolutely did not go voluntarily, and nor did she go with her parents permission. Children across the country just like my great grandmother were put onto a train, and if that gives you an icky feeling because it makes you think of trains and Jewish children and families being put on trains, it should, because it’s the same idea. It is about genocide.

Justice Montoya-Lewis’s great-grandmother was approximately 13 years old when government employees took her from her family home. She would remain there until she was 18 years old. Besides the cultural and familial deprivation endured, these children had no other choice but to give up their religious and cultural identity. The alternatives were punishment, imprisonment, abuse, and far worse. Some children even died in their attempts to return to their families.  

ML: I have photographs of my great-grandmother on the day she entered Carlisle Boarding school…[i]t’s a photograph with a couple of other kids from Laguna…[T]hen there’s a picture when she’s about 18 that’s the after picture and with her, are the same 2 boys as in the before picture. Their hair has gone from being long to short. The boys are in military uniforms. Carlisle Boarding School, like other residential schools, was built on a military model, and the girls were taught what we used to call home economics…[w]here they were taught how to cook and clean and basically how to be maids for other families.

There [was] a newsletter that Carlisle Boarding School used to put out on a monthly basis called The Indian Helper, and it’s pretty shocking when you read it….[i]t’s horrifying…[A]nd the person who came up with the idea of these boarding schools [Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, a veteran of the Indian Wars], his motto for the schools was “kill the Indian to save the man” and [t]he newsletters talk about doing exactly that.  The newsletters talk about the ways in which they are stamping out indigenous language, the consequences kids suffered for speaking their language, and the ways in which they were taught to become Catholic or Christian…and it’s written in these newsletters because they’re very proud of it.

She talked about what was advertised at the end of these newsletters: 

ML:…[I]n addition in those newsletters there’s usually ads at the end of them for children that are being sold to white families or “adopted” and so you could literally buy a child, and the ad would say what skills they had learned at the school. So, if it was a young woman it would often talk about.their ability to cook, or clean, or iron and dollar amount, and most typically you’d see $10…[J]ust the idea that there’s a dollar amount for this child.

Justice Montoya-Lewis talked about how the Carlisle Indian Industrial School is now a U.S Army War college, and that people can visit the location and grounds to learn more of what happened there. The school has gradually been trying to repatriate the bones of Native children who died there. There are 186 marked graves of children in the cemetery at the school, but the actual number of how many died is unknown. 

ML: Many kids just didn’t survive the experience for a whole host of reasons. They died as a result of being exposed to pathogens that they didn’t have any resistance to, I often talk with Judge Bill Thorne, who was a Court of Appeals judge in Utah, and is a Pomo tribal member, and he often talks about […] there were kids who just died of broken hearts, who just couldn’t survive the environment. We really don’t have good numbers for how many kids didn’t make it back, but we know that the recorded numbers are low, and so I feel very lucky that there is an after picture of my great grandmother, and that she got to go home.

After she finished at Carlisle, we have letters that she wrote back to Colonel Pratt, who was the principal of that school, and the founder, and they’re extremely painful to read because Carlisle really taught her to hate herself, and in her letters she talks about her failure to stop her community from practicing it’s traditional religion, and instead become Christian. She talks about her attempts but her failure to teach kids how to read and write in English.


How has this experience [boarding schools as a tool of genocide] affected the Native American population?

ML: I’ve worked for upwards of 20 different tribes, some very closely and for a long period of time, and other tribes where I’ve come in and done one case. I’ve had lots of people in tribal communities work for me in their court systems. I don’t know a single Native family whether those are my friends, my family, people I’ve worked with who have not been impacted by the residential boarding school system or the foster care system.  For our communities, they are one and the same. It is no different to have a social worker show up at your house and take your children for alleged reasons of abuse and neglect than it was to have my grandmother forcibly removed from her home and sent to Pennsylvania. We don’t make much of a distinction.

The intergenerational trauma that exists as a result of the boarding schools has been perpetuated in the foster care system, not just for the children who experienced the schools, but for the parents and families left behind. Justice Montoya-Lewis illustrated these issues as they related to child welfare cases and the Indian Child Welfare Act

ML: As a judge, I presided over child welfare cases all the time…[I] did that in tribal court, and became a national expert on working with families in crisis. If you have grown up in communities where no one grew up in an intact family because the government was coming in and removing children to institutional care, there’s no reason why you would expect people to know how to parent. I came from a community where if the police knock on your front door, you don’t answer it. There is zero trust, and you’re working with communities who have generational trauma and individual trauma because those individual kids were also sexually abused at extraordinarily high rates by people in those institutions, and who were physically abused, who were neglected, because there wasn’t enough food, the dorms were freezing. I’m afraid to say it but…[i]t could almost not be worse.

To have the expectation that our communities should be thriving is truly gaslighting. It’s sort of to say, we’re not doing that to you now.Why aren’t your families doing well??

It’s an ongoing trauma, and we have disproportionately high rates of kids in foster care. The Indian Child Welfare Act is intended to reunite Native families and protect them, and I’m glad that we have it, although it is currently in front of the US Supreme Court, and there is a very good chance that the US Supreme Court will find it unconstitutional, despite being found to be constitutional numerous times. I think there’s a very good chance that we won’t be talking about the Indian Child Welfare Act in the same way that we do today.


Do you feel that the mental health challenges Native Americans face are a direct result of the intergenerational trauma from the native American boarding schools? 

ML: Absolutely. I wouldn’t limit it to the boarding schools, but…[i]f the message that you’ve gotten as a community for hundreds of years is that you’re worthless but actually your life has no worth, and we wish you weren’t here, and we’re going to do everything we can to eradicate your existence. And that was the stated policy of the United States up until the 1970, which is in my lifetime. It is absolutely something that you feel. My father as well as his parents, and so forth, going back, was beaten for speaking the Tiwa language, our language. …[a]nd when I was born, he wanted me to learn and to speak that language, but every time he would start speaking to me in that language he would cry because he was scared that he was teaching me something that would have ultimately result in harm to me…[T]he conflict for him of being proud of who he was, and wanting me to speak our language, because that was what he was taught was one of the most important things that he passed that language down was also something that resulted in tremendous harm to him. So the consequence of that is language loss. In fact until the day he died, he felt that he failed by not teaching me the language.

Justice Montoya-Lewis admitted that it was exhausting to be the only Native person in any room she is in, but admitted that this situation is necessary in order to move forward.

ML: That’s a very hard position to put people in and yet you have to. If you want to sort of build cross-cultural trust in these systems that have historically a process, you’ve got to have people working in the system and outside the system, you gotta have agitators in both places. I think we’re a long way from trust in a bigger sense. I’m one person; I would do my job the best I could, and when I had tribal people in my courtroom, I would work really hard to make that courtroom a place that they felt heard.


Being a Native American yourself, is it tough to prosecute fellow Native Americans who clearly suffer from mental illnesses?

ML: Absolutely. You know our system is set up to punish. It’s not set up to help. And so we’re trying to retrofit, support and help a system that was not set up to do that. We’re kind of working against ourselves as a culture in lots of respects…[O]ur legal system works based upon precedent…[w]e look at what’s come before in order to decide what’s going to happen next…[w]hat you end up with is the perpetuation of ideas that are maybe not current…[t]oday, maybe just flat out wrong…[A]nd…[w]e want to be able to to say those cases [are] incorrect and harmful, and today we have the power to say that and change the law and change the rule, and our court is willing to do that when when we believe it’s an important thing.

Justice Montoya-Lewis then gave an example of a 1916 case involving a Yakama Nation man.

ML:..[y]ou can look at what we did about it on the front page of the Supreme Court’s website…[the] case is called State v.Towessnute…[w]here we had the descendants of some indigenous people who were fishing in the early 1900s who were convicted of fishing unlawfully, and they said we have treaty rights to be fishing here…[a]nd actually the prosecutor in that case [agreed] said, you’re right, you do, and so we’re not going to prosecute you.

But …[t]he Washington Supreme Court, reached down to the trial court, grabbed that case and said, oh, yes, you will prosecute these people and the language when it talked about Native people was horrifying and denigrating and awful. 

…[T]he descendants of those people came to the Court in 2020…[a]nd [asked] would [I] be willing to write something that repudiates that case and says that was wrong and this court shouldn’t have done it. And we agreed to do that, and I was given the chance to write that decision and to read it, and it was videotaped. And that was one of the highlights of my career to have that opportunity. And I think the reason why that…[m]atter[s] is because we’re saying to future courts and to individual people that we’re not just a court about the big picture, or about the theory of the law….[W]e recognize that what we do…[a]ffects individual human lives. And if we screw it up, even if it’s a 100 years later, we should admit it because that’s the only way you build.

Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta and a descendant of the Pueblo of Laguna, two federally recognized tribes in New Mexico.  She was raised in New Mexico, is Jewish on her mother’s side and Native American on her father’s side. Her most fundamental value is her cultural heritage. She carries the weight of knowing she is where she is today thanks to those who survived before her, and to honor those who didn’t. She is distinctly aware of the fact that she comes from two cultures the world tried to erase. But they did not erase her.

Justice Montoya-Lewis’s vibrance is palpable, even in silence. Hearing her today, it is clear that she will never stop speaking out for those without a voice.

Please visit Indigenous | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness to learn more about the effects of intergenerational trauma on Native American communities and Indigenous people.

This article is a collaborative piece created by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course. We want to extend our deepest thanks to Justice Montoya-Lewis for her generosity of time and inspiration. Special thanks as well to Jennifer Sanchez for her assistance in the editing process. 


This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.