Thomasina Real Bird: Championing Native American Communities and Lawyers

In honor of Women’s History Month, we are reflecting on progress toward gender equality and greater social justice by telling the stories of trailblazing female lawyers. That includes lawyers from past decades who opened doors, as well as lawyers practicing today.

Thomasina Real Bird is a groundbreaking tribal law expert who is passionate about supporting Native American communities and creating opportunities for Native American lawyers. Real Bird serves as immediate past-president of the National Native American Bar Association (NNABA), which represents lawyers who are American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, most of whom are both U.S. citizens and citizens of their respective tribal nations. The organization works to promote issues relevant to protecting the governmental sovereignty of the more than 560 independent Native American Tribal governments in the United States.

Real Bird received her law degree from Columbia Law School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford University. She is Ihanktonwan Nakota and Sicangu Lakota, and an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

A founding partner of Patterson Earnhart Real Bird & Wilson LLP, a majority native-owned law firm, Real Bird focuses her legal practice on representing tribal nations, tribal enterprises and tribal members. The firm directly serves tribes in promoting economic development, addressing infrastructure issues, protecting tribal water rights, and advancing the sovereignty and jurisdiction of tribal nations. They serve as general counsel and special counsel to Indian tribal governments and their enterprises to implement laws, regulations, policies, and priorities for their tribes and members.

Representation and inclusion of Indigenous lawyers continues to fall short across the profession, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives often fail to take these lawyers’ unique position into account. A 2015 NNABA study found that there were 2,640 Native American attorneys in the United States, comprising 0.2% of the more than 1.2 million lawyers in the United States. While this cohort is small compared with other ethnic groups, it represents significant professional accomplishment and experience with specialized areas of the law. However, the American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Population Survey results for 2020 indicated that the number of Native lawyers in the United States “rounds down to zero percent.” This statement may be statistically accurate, but the erasure of Indigenous colleagues was a major disappointment to attorneys from this group, and should trouble all practitioners working toward true inclusion in the legal industry.

Real Bird focuses her talents and the talents of her firm colleagues on working to prevent attacks on tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction, and ensuring that the federal government upholds its treaty and trust responsibilities to Indian tribes. She also works through professional organizations and informal mentoring relationships to foster the development of the next generation of Indigenous attorneys — and to raise their visibility in a profession that, unfortunately, continues to largely ignore their outstanding accomplishments.