The story of Ada Deer ’57 begins in a log cabin on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin.
Inspired in part by her mother’s activism on behalf of her tribe, Deer left the reservation to attend the University of Wisconsin on a tribal scholarship. As an undergraduate, she was inspired by the nascent civil-rights movement and by leaders such as Dr. Kenneth Clark and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Deer’s dedication to social justice propelled her toward a career filled with “firsts,” including her achievements as the first Menominee to earn an undergraduate degree from the UW — in 1957 — and the first American Indian to earn a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University.
During the late 1960s, Deer organized a grassroots movement to restore federal tribal status to the Menominee Nation. Her lobbying in Washington, DC, led to the 1973 signing of the Menominee Restoration Act: a hallmark of Deer’s advocacy for American Indian rights.
In each of her historic firsts, Deer sought change through the art and science of social work and politics. She was the first woman appointed as Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, and from 1993 until 1997, she served more than 550 tribes as the first American Indian woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Honoring her commitment and advocacy, the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin elected Deer its first woman chair.
Deer sought change through the art and science of social work and politics.
At UW–Madison, Deer taught for many years in the School of Social Work and directed the American Indian Studies Program from 2000 to 2007. Even in retirement, her legacy of social justice continues to grow through her national service on commissions and committees, mentorship of young scholars and leaders, influence through many conferences and panels, and respect and promotion of education on all levels for all people.
“Each of us needs to pay our rent on the planet every day. I like that because we have all this surrounding us,” Deer said. “We have this great university, this beautiful land in Wisconsin — it’s truly a blessing.”
We at the University of Wisconsin–Madison thank you, Menominee County, for Ada Deer, who has worked tirelessly for Indians in Wisconsin and across the nation. You’ve helped to extend the Wisconsin Idea far beyond the state’s borders and set the Menominee Nation as a precedent and national model.