Her grandmother was stripped of her identity. Now she’s training judges to fight bias

A black-and-white photo of her great-great-grandmother hangs on the wall of Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis’ office in the Whatcom County Courthouse.

Tzashima was from the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, indigenous people in what is now New Mexico.

In the late 1800s, Montoya-Lewis’ ancestor was sent to a Pennsylvania boarding school that stripped her of her native identity.

“It’s a story that we talk about in our family a lot,” Montoya-Lewis said, “but it’s not something that’s talked about outside.”

Montoya-Lewis shares her family’s story when she teaches classes in unconscious or implicit bias to judges, court employees and others throughout Washington state, including the Judicial College that all new judges must attend.

She tells her students how Tzashima went as a girl to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where tribal members were assimilated into white culture and often treated brutally.

“Their motto was “Kill the Indian but save the man,” Montoya-Lewis said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

“They were all beaten for speaking their native language in school. While (my father) wanted me to grow up speaking our native language ... it came with a lot of trauma,” she said.

‘Prejudices creep into everyday life’

Her story shocks most people, but Montoya-Lewis said it’s a powerful way to show how prejudices creep into everyday life in ways that non-minority people don’t even notice.

“I tell the story of institutional racism, but through my family,” said Montoya-Lewis, who is Pueblo of Isleta and the only Native American judge in the state court system. “It’s important because we have to acknowledge that those things exist.”

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Raquel Montoya-Lewis, right, is sworn as a Whatcom County Superior Court judge in 2015 by retired state Supreme Court justice Bobbe Bridge. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey said he asked Montoya-Lewis to teach an implicit bias class to everyone in his office, from secretaries to lawyers, shortly after he became prosecutor in January.

“I think we would be negligent not to believe that bias does not occur in our community,” Richey said in an interview with The Herald. “We must acknowledge it and address it head-on.”

Richey said he wanted everyone in his office to understand the impact of institutional bias.

“I think about it in every case I handle,” Richey said. “It’s probably going to be a never-ending process.”

According to 2018 census estimates, the population of Whatcom County is 77.8% white (non-Hispanic or Latino), 9.5% Hispanic or Latino, 4.6% Asian, 1.3% black and 3.4% American Indian or Alaska Native.

Unconscious bias goes beyond race

But unconscious bias goes beyond race, to include prejudices about sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, employment status, intellectual or physical ability and appearance, Montoya Lewis said.

“It happens all the time, regularly, and it comes in all sorts of forms,” she said. “There’s a pretty big gulf between people who experience that and people who don’t.”

Montoya-Lewis said she asks people in her classes to imagine ways in which they celebrate a holiday or special occasion, to show them that most people have shared values and beliefs.

She asks students to participate in a role-reversal activity, pretending that they are facing trial in a courtroom full of judges, lawyers, clerks and jurors who appear different from them.

Montoya-Lewis said that her father taught her how to shake hands and make eye contact when meeting someone — a Western norm that’s not the practice in some cultures.

“I really had to learn that this is what you do,” she said. “If you’re out in the world you have to learn to navigate that.”

She recalled a trial in which several native people were called as witnesses.

“Everybody who testified was very quiet and soft-spoken and didn’t look people in the eye,’” she said.

Jurors interpreted that body language to mean that they weren’t being truthful.

In her classes, Montoya-Lewis shows students how media can influence the way we see the world, using the example of two photographs that picture a dark-skinned person wading through floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, holding boxes of merchandise. The caption on one photo says the person has found supplies to survive. The caption on the other photo says the person has looted a store.

It illustrates how images we see in the media affect how we view different cultures, Montoya-Lewis said.

‘The conversation is important’

“We can’t undo all of that, but we can be conscious that it exists,” she said. “The conversation is important.”

Montoya-Lewis said she remembered once watching a Whatcom jury selection for the trial of a black immigrant, and almost everyone else in the courtroom was white.

“A juror asked the prosecutor, ‘When are you going to ask us a question related to bias?”

She said the prosecutor refused to accept that race could be a factor.

“It was a missed opportunity,” Montoya-Lewis said. “I think it was largely that they didn’t know how to pursue the conversation.”

Richey said that the reluctance to discuss racial inequality and other forms of bias was one reason that he asked Montoya-Lewis to talk to his staff.

“It’s an exciting time — it’s a difficult time — (but) we’re doing it in Whatcom County and we feel like we’re leading in a lot of ways,” Richey said.

Montoya-Lewis said she wants her classes to let people know that it’s OK to discuss race.

*These are people with good intentions who have been taught that it’s rude and absolutely the third rail to talk about culture and race,” Montoya-Lewis said.

“These conversations are conversations that we should be having about all our institutions. I hope people leave my training with a lot more questions than they came in with,” she said.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.