Bree Black Horse said her mother reminded her from a young age that, as a Native American, she should be an example.
“(She said) you may be the only Native person people may meet, and I have to represent my people and my family in a good way,” said Black Horse, a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. “I consider it an honor to represent my people.”
Black Horse, 32, a senior associate with the Seattle-based Kilpatrick Townsend law firm, not only represents tribal interests in the court system but is also working to boost the representation of Native women and other women of color.
While born and raised in the Seattle area, Black Horse, whose Indian name is Prized Woman, and her family would come to White Swan for powwows.
She decided to become a lawyer, seeing the legal system as a means to help Native people, even though Natives have a complicated relationship with American law. She said the judicial system had been used to force Native people from their lands and quash tribal culture through Indian boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, and did not recognize Native people as American citizens until 1924.
“As a young person, I saw how the law negatively impacted our people, but also as a tool to advance our rights and tribal sovereignty,” Black Horse said.
She attended the University of Washington School of Law, where she was a Douglas Nash Native American Law Scholar, which provides a two-year scholarship for Native people studying law, a recognition that Native Americans are the least-represented group among lawyers.
In 2020, the American Bar Association found that less than half of 1% of lawyers were Native Americans, even though Native people comprise 1.4% of the population. By comparison, 86% of lawyers were non-Hispanic whites, while Hispanic and Blacks each represented 5%, and Asians 2%.
While she has been the only Native woman in some settings, Black Horse said she was never intimidated, as she knew she was there to represent Native people, and that her heritage gave her unique perspectives.
“I’m descended from warriors and people who survived and endured and overcame unimaginable circumstances,” Black Horse said, adding that the Seminoles were among those forcibly marched to what is now Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
“I think of what they had to endure, and (my challenges are) nothing in comparison.”
While at school, she co-founded the American Indian Law Journal and served as its editor in chief. She also worked at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Tribal Justice, and clerked for a federal judge in Montana.
She worked for Galanda Broadman in Seattle, a law firm that specializes in Native American issues, before moving to Yakima in 2019 to take a job with the Yakama Nation as an attorney providing legal aid.
“When presented with the opportunity to move to this community, I was thrilled,” Black Horse said. “Despite COVID being present the whole time we have been here, we really love being part of this community and growing our relationships here.”
In 2020, Kilpatrick Townsend hired her for its Native American practice group. But she took the job with the understanding that she would be able to stay in Yakima. She is admitted to practice in 12 tribal courts, as well as the federal courts. While she likes being in court, her preference is tribal courts, where she said there is a greater emphasis on community and fewer barriers to participation, such as court fees.
And she’s also helping to remove barriers for Native women and women of color who want to become lawyers. She uses some of her spare time to help young Indigenous women navigate the process of applying to law school. She sees it as passing along the help she received from people when she was starting out.
As a board member of the Yakima chapter of Washington Women Lawyers, Black Horse has co-founded a scholarship program for women of color from the Valley, or who have ties to the area, who are interested in going to law school or are already attending.
“It’s a need we saw in the organization in how to bridge that gap,” Black Horse said.
The Seattle-based Share Group has provided a $30,000 grant to help fund the scholarships, and is hoping to launch it later this year. The money, she said, would be paid to the recipient rather than the institution.
She is also chair of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington chapter’s legal committee and chair-elect of the Washington State Bar Association’s Indian Law Section.
She and her husband, attorney and Nez Perce citizen Derek Red Arrow Frank, enjoy outdoor activities such as skiing and hiking Mount Adams. Black Horse also has a 12-year-old stepdaughter.
Profession: Senior associate with Kilpatrick Townsend law firm