Barrier Breakers – Remembering Ada Deer

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By KJ LeFave

Earlier this month, on August 15th, the esteemed Menominee leader Ada Deer passed away. Her impact on Native communities across the nation, as well as her influence at UW-Madison, was enormous and serves as inspiration to all who hear her story. A woman who broke countless barriers and worked tirelessly to advance the position of Native Americans, Deer set a precedent at UW-Madison and everywhere else she went for effective, nonviolent Indigenous activism and policymaking.

A black and white picture of a young woman in traditional Indigenous clothing looking at the camera.
Ada Deer in 1952.[1]

Born August 7th, 1935 on the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Reservation in Keshena, Deer grew up on the reservation near Wolf River in a log cabin without electricity or running water.[2] Throughout her childhood, Deer was exposed to the many injustices faced by Native Americans through her own experiences and those of her father’s. Her father, Joe Deer, was a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and struggled with alcoholism as a result of the generational trauma that his family was subjected to.[3] As a child, he was forcibly removed from his family and was involuntarily sent to a Catholic boarding school, where he was stripped of his tribal name and subjected to numerous measures aimed at diminishing his native Menominee culture.[4] Tragically, the story of Native children being stolen from their families and displaced to religious institutions attempting to eradicate their culture is one that is all too common. This personal connection to the adverse practice of kidnapping Native children and resulting trauma informed Deer’s later activism and involvement in social work for Native Americans across the nation.

Starting in 1953, Deer enrolled at UW-Madison on a tribal scholarship.[5] She graduated in 1957 with a degree in social work, and in doing so became the first Menominee tribe member to graduate from the university.[6] Her list of firsts in academia didn’t stop there. After she received her BA from UW, Deer enrolled in a Masters of Social Work program at Columbia University in New York. She became the first Native American to graduate from the school, earning her a spot in Columbia’s Alumni Hall of Fame.[8] Armed with two degrees in social work, Deer first began her career as a school social worker in New York, Minneapolis, and even Puerto Rico with the Peace Corps.[9]

Headshot of an indigenous woman looking facing towards the right.
Ada Deer in 1978.[10]

It wasn’t until Deer moved back to Minnesota from Puerto Rico to work as the Community Service Coordinator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs that she first got into policymaking.[11] While not involved in Native policy until the 1960s, Deer was first exposed to policy and advocacy for her community as a child. When Deer was as young as four, her mother started routinely taking her to Menominee tribal meetings.[12] Although not an Indigenous woman herself, Deer described her mother as “a fierce crusader for Indian rights” and credits her as her inspiration to become active in advocating for pro-Native policy.[13] What served as the catalyst for Deer’s involvement in Native policymaking was when her tribe, the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin, was stripped of its federal recognition in 1961 as the result of a 1954 ruling by Congress.[14] This had devastating effects on the tribe, and “quickly resulted in lower standards of living for all Menominee.”[15] Deer herself said that the termination of the tribe’s federal status “was a disaster — politically, economically, culturally.”[16] Committed to securing her tribe the resources they needed, Deer took up arms by orchestrating a grassroots movement, the Determination of Right and Unity for Menominee Shareholders, to advocate for the reinstatement of her tribe’s federal status.[17] In December of 1973, Deer’s efforts paid off when President Richard Nixon signed the bill that restored the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s federal status.[18] The success of Deer’s efforts landed her the position of Chairwoman of the tribe, the first woman to hold the honor, a role that she served in from 1974 to 1976.[19]

Following her stint as Chairwoman of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Deer began lecturing at UW-Madison in 1977 in both the American Indian Studies Department and School of Social Work.[20] She taught at the university until 1993, when she was afforded the opportunity of a lifetime – to serve as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.[21] Appointed by President Bill Clinton, and as the first woman to hold this position, Deer was able to assist hundreds of tribes on the federal level.[22] At the conclusion of her career at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1997, Deer again returned to UW-Madison and worked as the director of the American Indian Studies program from 2000 to 2007 when she retired.[23]

Throughout her journey, Deer blazed many trails and racked up many awards, such as being deemed a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers, being inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame, receiving the UW-Madison Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work Distinguished Alumni Award, receiving the Pollitzer Award from the Ethical Cultural Society in New York, and the Robert and Belle Case La Follette Award for Distinction in Public Service from the Wisconsin Historical Society – just to name a few. Her most recent honor was given to her just a week before her death when Governor Tony Evers declared August 7th, 2023 – her 88th birthday – Ada Deer Day.[25]

Image of an elderly woman speaking at a podium.
Ada Deer in June 2023, at the WisDems 2023 Convention.[25]

Ms. Deer’s service was attended by hundreds, a testament to the lives she touched, with people cramming into a full house celebration of life held at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Madison.[26] Community members, UW students and faculty, friends, family and more all gathered to pay their respects and say wāēwaenen on behalf of all those impacted by her tireless pursuit of the advancement of Native peoples. Her commitment to nonviolent advocacy and policymaking reverberated across the nation, and though she has passed, she continues to be a source of strength and inspiration in all the communities she touched.

[1] Damerow sisters, Ada Deer, December 1952, University of Wisconsin Digiral Collections.

[2] Käri Knutson, “Ada Deer: A Lifetime of Firsts,” News, December 18, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Ada Deer,” National Parks Service.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Ada Deer,” The Columbia School of Social Work, January 22, 2021.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Ada Deer,” National Parks Service.

[10] Normal Lenburg, Ada Deer, July 1978, University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

[11] Knutson, “Ada Deer,” News, December 18, 2018.

[12] Clay Risen, “Ada Deer, Native American Voice inside Government and out, Dies at 88,” The New York Times.

[13]Ada Deer,” National Parks Service.

[14]Menominee Termination and Restoration,” Milwaukee Public Museum.

[15] Ibid.

[16] American Indian Experience: Ada Deer and Mike Chosa. Media Burn Archive, 1976.

[17] Knutson, “Ada Deer,” News, December 18, 2018.

[18]Menominee Termination and Restoration,” Milwaukee Public Museum.

[19]Forging Firsts: The Remarkable Life of Ada Deer,” Wisconsin Alumni Association.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Knutson, “Ada Deer,” News, December 18, 2018.

[24] Hope Kirwan, “Native American Grassroots Leader Ada Deer Dies at 88,” NPR, August 17, 2023.

[25] Alex Wroblewski, Ada Deer, June 2023, Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

[26] Shaina Nijhawan, “Friends and Family of Ada Deer Reminisce on Her Impactful Life at Memorial Service,” NBC15, August 24, 2023.