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20141113-OSEC-RBN-2940 [Ada Deer, former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior and keynote speaker enjoys lunch at the Cultural Exchange during the Native American Heritage Month Observance at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.] Photo by Bob Nichols. via Flickr (November 14, 2014). Used under creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Ada Deer: Advocate for Tribal Sovereignty

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This Native American Heritage Month, we honor the significant figures in history who contributed to civil rights and the law. Ada Deer, Menominee, was an activist, tribal leader, social worker, government official, professor, and community activist, all in service to her community. In the process of trying to make improvements in the quality of Native lives, she accomplished several firsts.

[Ada Deer, former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior and keynote speaker at the at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Native American Heritage Month] 20141113-OSEC-RBN-2824 Photo by Bob Nichols. Used under creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Born in Keshena, Wisconsin, in 1935, she was the oldest of five children. She grew up in a log cabin on the Wolf River on the Menominee Reservation. Ms. Deer’s mother started taking her to tribal meetings when she was just four. Her mother encouraged her throughout her childhood to take part in her community, learn her language, and broaden her horizons by having experiences outside her community. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s in social work, the first Menominee to graduate from the University of Wisconsin. She was the first Indigenous person to obtain a master’s in social work from Columbia University. She wrote that she “had spent almost [her] entire life preparing [her]self to be useful” and that she planned to put her training to work (Deer, Making a Difference, 43).

Shortly after embarking on her professional career, she joined the grassroots movement to restore tribal recognition for the Menominee. In the 1950s, the Menominee Tribe ”experienced further setbacks” with the passage of “the Menominee Termination Act, which removed federal recognition over the Tribe and threatened to deprive Menominee people of their cultural identity.” Deer observed that “immediately upon termination, Menominee County became the poorest county in Wisconsin” although it had been prosperous from careful logging management (Making a Difference, 56).  Menominee tribal members including Deer and some of her family formed the group Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS); she became the chair in December 1970 and made restoration her full-time job (Deer, Making a Difference, 98). After Deer, other Menominees, and non-Menominee Natives, met and lobbied in Washington for three years, Congress passed the Menominee Restoration Act on December 22, 1973. Ms. Deer returned to Wisconsin to work on the Menominee Constitution. She was elected chair of the Menominee Restoration Committee and with the other committee members and assistance from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), a constitution was drafted and adopted in November 1976.  She was the first woman to lead the Menominee Tribe. When speaking in 1993 about her earlier role, she said:

Against all odds, we invented a new policy, restoration. Now again, I would like to emphasize this. We, the Menominees, invented a new policy: restoration. This is the possibility, this is the challenge, that Indigenous peoples in the hemisphere and across the world can exert and accept. You don’t have to accept the policies; you can work to change them.” (Speaker’s emphasis.)

Ms. Deer resigned from the committee, having completed her part of the work of restoration, and returned to her full-time career. She was employed at the School of Social Work as a part-time instructor and a curriculum developer at the University of Wisconsin. She spent two years working as a NARF Legislative Liaison focused on Reclamation and Restoration. (Deer, Making a Difference, 136). She was the Program Director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin Madison until 2007.

She achieved the capstone of her career when she was appointed the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior. Deer was the first Native woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  She was sworn in at the Menominee Powwow, another first, instead of in Washington (Deer, Making a Difference, 155). During her tenure, she made the “defense and expansion of tribal sovereignty” her top priority (Deer, Making a Difference, 168). She established government-to-government relationships with 226 Alaskan Native Villages, approved gaming compacts between 130 tribes and 24 states, and approved the federal recognition of four tribes (Deer, Making a Difference, 181).

Described by those who knew her as a “whirlwind” and a “force of nature”, Deer continued her community service until late in life. She said, “Be activists to achieve change. We all pay our rent on the planet. How are you paying your rent?”


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  1. Thank you for your wonderful coverage of our winning “whirlwind”!

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