Ada Deer

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Ada Deer
Ada Deer.jpg
6th Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs
In office
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byEddie Frank Brown
Succeeded byKevin Gover
Personal details
Keshena, Wisconsin
NationalityAmerican, Menominee Nation of Wisconsin
Political partyDemocratic
ResidenceFitchburg, Wisconsin
Alma materUniversity of Wisconsin–Madison
New York School of Social Work (Master of Social Work)
Professionsocial worker (retired)

Ada Deer (born 1935) (Menominee) is a Native American advocate, scholar and civil servant. As an activist she opposed the federal termination of tribes from the 1950s following the bills led by Arthur Vivian Watkins, a Republican senator.[1]


A member of the Menominee tribe, Deer was born in Keshena, Wisconsin in 1935 and grew up living on an Indian reservation.[2] She obtained a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Master of Social Work from the New York School of Social Work (later Columbia University School of Social Work).

Native American advocacy[edit]

Following completion of her graduate work, Deer returned to the Midwest to be closer to the Menominee Nation, settling in Minneapolis. She found few local services in place for Native Americans living in urban settings. She worked to advocate on their behalf with federal authorities. She also led a newer generation of Native American Leaders which helped gain acceptance of self-determination in things that they do, but also works to implement it consistently. Ada Led the Menominees in their drive to restore the ties that their tribe had with the federal government in 1991. Ada Deer does this because in 1991 she became the head of the Native American Right's Fund. This is a large accomplishment, which led to immense leadership capabilities. In the book, American Indians by Hagan, Ada Deer is described as a part of the "increasing number of women" that are making a difference in the Native American environment.

Since the "Termination Era" of the 1950s and 1960s (resulting in reduced federal oversight of Native American affairs), the Menominee tribe had been governed by a corporate body called Menominee Enterprise, Inc.. Menominee Enterprises, Inc. was controlled by a voting trust and Menominee tribal members had no shares in the corporation. Four of the voting trust members were Menominee; however, five votes were required in order for the trust to take action. In the 1960s and 1970s there was renewed Congressional involvement in rebuilding tribal infrastructure, both socially and economically.

During that time, Deer became involved in a group called DRUMS (Determination of Right and Unity for Menominee Shareholders) in opposition to Menominee Enterprise's proposed sale of former Menominee lands. At first, Deer encountered difficulty with Wayne Aspinall, chairman of the Interior Committee in Congress, who had supported termination of the Menominee as a federally recognized tribe.[clarification needed]. She took frequent trips to Washington, but was denied the chance to speak with Aspinall. After he was defeated for his seat, Deer raised publicity as well as support for the Menominee cause.

Her efforts, along with many other Menominees, played a part in bringing the Termination Era to a close. On December 22, 1973 President Richard Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act.[3] This legislation restored official federal recognition to the Menominee tribe. From 1974 to 1976, Deer served as chair of the Menominee Restoration Committee.

In 1993, Deer was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Interior by President Bill Clinton and served head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997 and as the first woman to head this Bureau. During this period, she was a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. From January to May 1997, she served as Chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission.[4]

Before and after her term in the BIA, Deer served on the National Support Committee of the Native American Rights Fund. She has served as chair of the NSC and chair of the NARF board of directors.

Political efforts[edit]

Deer ran for Wisconsin's secretary of state in both 1978 and 1982 but was not successful. She served as vice-chair of the Walter Mondale/Geraldine Ferraro presidential campaign in 1984.

In 1992, she ran for a seat in the United States Congress in Wisconsin's Second District. She won the Democratic primary without "soft money" funding from political action committees. Following her primary win, a local newspaper ran a photo of Deer proudly holding a sign reading "Me Nominee" in a reference to her tribal membership.

Educational career[edit]

Deer has taught in the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1977, currently holding the title of Distinguished Lecturer. Since 1999, she has been the director of the American Indian Studies Department at UW–Madison. During her tenure, she co-founded Milwaukee's Indian Community School. She also created the first program at the University to provide social work training on Native American reservations. In addition, she is a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Notable achievements[edit]

  • First member of the Menominee Tribe to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (1957)
  • First member of the Menominee Tribe to receive a master's degree (1961)
  • First woman to serve as chair of the Menominee Restoration Committee (1974)
  • Pollitzer Award, Ethical Cultural Society, N.Y. (1975)
  • First Native American woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1993)
  • Included as one of 51 "accomplished practitioners and educators" in the book Celebrating Social Work: Faces and Voices of the Formative Years (Council on Social Work Education, 2003)
  • In 2000 she was a National Women's History Month honoree.[5]

Past national board service[edit]

  • American Indian Policy Review Commission
  • Americans for Indian Opportunity
  • Common Cause National Governing Board, elected 1973
  • Council on Foundations
  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Native American Rights Fund


  1. ^ "Deer, Ada, 1935". Archived from the original on 6 November 2012.
  2. ^ Deer, Ada (2019). Making a difference: my fight for native rights and social justice. University of Oklahoma. ISBN 9780806164274.
  3. ^ "H.R. 10717 (93rd): Menominee Restoration Act".
  4. ^ Archived October 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, Past Commissioners, Commission Chairs
  5. ^ "National Women's History Project". Archived from the original on 2012-07-30. Retrieved 2012-10-09.


External links[edit]

  • Media related to Ada Deer at Wikimedia Commons