Women's History Month: Ada Deer

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Ada Deer (Photo/File Photo)
Ada Deer (Photo/File Photo)

During the month of March, in recognition of Women's History Month, Native News Online will feature various Native American women who have contributed to the betterment of Indian Country.

Ada Deer (August 7, 1935 - August 15, 2023)

Ada Deer, a towering figure in Native American advocacy and the first woman to serve the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, made indelible marks throughout her life.

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Born in Kashena, Wisconsin, Deer’s early years were spent in poverty on the Menominee Indian Reservation, where her upbringing instilled in her a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to social justice.

Deer’s journey was marked by groundbreaking achievements and unwavering commitment to her community. She shattered barriers by becoming the first Menominee to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later, in 1961, the first Native American to receive a Master of Social Work from the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Her lifelong advocacy came to the forefront in the 1970s when her tireless efforts led to the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, which restored federal recognition to the Menominee Tribe. This historic achievement not only reinstated the tribe’s sovereignty but also paved the way for Deer to become the first woman to chair the Menominee Tribe.

Deer’s political activism extended beyond tribal boundaries. She ran for Wisconsin Secretary of State in 1978 and 1982 and made history in 1992 as the first Native American woman in Wisconsin to run for U.S. Congress.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, where she oversaw the BIA and played a pivotal role in shaping federal policy for over 550 federally recognized tribes.

During her term in office, Deer advocated for tribal sovereignty and worked tirelessly to secure federal recognition for numerous Native American communities, including 226 Alaska Native villages and tribes in Michigan and California. Her advocacy earned her the respect and admiration of tribal leaders across the country.

“Because of her fighting for our federal recognition, we benefited greatly because of the aid that comes to us as recognized tribes,”Cheif Mike Williams of the Akiak Native Community in Alaska told Native News Online. “She was a fighter for sovereignty. In our conversations, we always talked about the restoration process. She fought so hard to have the Menominee tribe, her tribe, restored to full federal recognition status.”

Deer’s impact extended beyond politics. She forged a deep and enduring friendship with Gwen Carr, Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, who fondly recalls Deer’s unwavering support and belief in her abilities.

“She always believed in me a lot of times when I didn't believe in myself. She took that incredibly wonderful quality about her and applied it in many different places. And in many different ways,” Carr told Native News Online. “The Creator gave her many gifts but the biggest one was her faith in the good. And her ability to stand for what was right in the middle of what was wrong. Not lose her footing and not lose her vision ever.”

In addition to her political and advocacy work, Deer served on the board of directors for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), where she continued to fight for the rights of Indigneous peoples.

“Ada Deer was a great leader. We represented her when she led the Menominee tribal restoration movement back in the 1970s.  She later served on our Board of Directors and became the Board Chairwoman. And, of course, she later became the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior where she did great things for Native Americans,” John Echohawk, Executive Director of NARF, told Native News Online.

As an educator and social worker, Deer’s was an influence to the next generation of Native American leaders. She taught classes at the UW-Madison School of Social Work and served as the director of the American Indian Studies Program, inspiring countless students to carry on her legacy of activism and advocacy.

Deer’s life was a testament to the power of resilience, determination, and unwavering faith in the pursuit of justice. Her legacy will continue to inspire generations of Native Americans and all those who strive for a more just and equitable society.

Ada walked on while in hospice care in Fitchburg, Wisconsin on August 15, 2023, at the age of 88.

About the Author: "Kaili Berg (Aleut) is a member of the Alutiiq\/Sugpiaq Nation, and a shareholder of Koniag, Inc. She is a staff reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Berg, who is based in Wisconsin, previously reported for the Ho-Chunk Nation newspaper, Hocak Worak. She went to school originally for nursing, but changed her major after finding her passion in communications at Western Technical College in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. "

Contact: kberg@indiancountrymedia.com