Interpretation & Translation News

Washington state has sworn in its first Native American Supreme Court justice, Raquel Montoya-Lewis, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta Indian tribe. Judge Montoya-Lewis, 51, is only the second Native American person to serve on any state supreme court.

Montoya-Lewis attended University of New Mexico for undergrad, and University of Washington for law school. She also holds a masters degree in social work. She served on the Washington Superior Court from 2015 to December 2019. Montoya-Lewis has been a professor at Western Washington University, and has served as chief judge for three Washington Native American tribes: the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and the Lummi Nation.

At the swearing-in ceremony, Montoya-Lewis spoke about her background, including her father, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Indian tribe, and her Jewish mother. Montoya-Lewis expressed the importance of diverse judges. In discussing the Washington Supreme Court building, she reflected, “The first thought I had was that these hallways, and those steps, were not built with people like me in my mind.”

During the swearing-in, there was an invocation from the president of the Quinault Indian Nation, as well as opening and closing songs from Port Gamble S’Klallam Singers. Rabbi Seth Goldstein, a rabbi based in Olympia, Washington performed a benediction. After her appointment, speaking with press, Montoya-Lewis said, “I was raised to remember that I come from those who survived. My ancestors on both sides of my family survived genocide, survived institutional boarding schools, survived attempts to eradicate their cultures, and yet as my father reminded me often, ‘we survived’. I am here because of their resilience, their courage, their intelligence, and their deep commitment to what is just.”

We thought we would take this historic opportunity to explore the languages spoken by the Pueblo of Isleta and Pueblo of Laguna Indian tribes. The history and complexity of the language families associated with these indigenous peoples is fascinating.

First, we must zoom out a bit. Both the Pueblo of Isleta and Pueblo of Laguna tribes are groups of indigenous people who are native to the southwest, specifically New Mexico, and belong to the Pueblo people, or Puebloans. This is the term that became used to refer to these people by the invading Spanish in the 16th century, named after their adobe constructed buildings, which the Spanish called pueblos.

To this day, 100 Pueblos remain, including Pueblo of Isleta and Pueblo of Laguna. Puebloans speak languages from four different language families, which are mutually unintelligible. In Pueblo of Laguna and six other Pueblos, people use the Keres or Keresan language family, which itself has many mutually unintelligible dialects. In fact, there are such extreme differences between Eastern and Western Keres, they are oftentimes considered wholly separate languages, not dialects. The Laguna speak the Kawaika dialect of Western Keres. There are currently about 1,000 speakers of this language.

In Pueblo of Isleta, Puebloans speak Southern Tiwa, a language belonging to the Kiowa-Tanoan language family. The Kiowa-Tanoan family consists of three sub-branches, Towa, Tewa, and Tiwa. Tiwa is the only Tanoan sub-branch that also has separate languages: Northern and Southern Tiwa. Southern Tiwa is spoken at two other Pueblos in addition to the Pueblo of Isleta, and is closely related to Picurís and Taos, languages spoken at other Pueblos. There are three dialects of Southern Tiwa: Sandía, Isleta, and Ysleta del Sur (Tigua). Isleta is the dialect spoken at Pueblo of Isleta, and is mutually intelligible with Sandía.

In 2015 it was announced that, as a part of the school’s transfer from federal to tribal control, the Tiwa language would be taught to children at Isleta Elementary School in Pueblo of Isleta. For more information about current events reauthorization of funding for Native language programs, check out our last article at