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Ada Deer was born on the Menominee Indian Reservation, Wisconsin, in 1935 has been a fierce advocate for Native Americans her entire life.
She is a member of the Menominee tribe. Ada 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
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.
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] chairman and supporter of termination. 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. 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 as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Past national board service
American Indian Policy Review Commission
Americans for Indian Opportunity
Council on Foundations
National Association of Social Workers
Native American Rights Fund
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