Ada Deer (Menominee), the first woman to serve as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), walked on Tuesday night after a long illness. She was 88 years old.
Deer was born in Keshena, Wisconsin and grew up in poverty on the Menominee Indian Reservation. She was a Native American advocate, scholar and civil servant. She was the first Menominee to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1961, she was the first Native American to earn a master's degree from Columbia University.
Her work on behalf of the Menominee led to the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, which officially returned the Menominee Reservation to federally recognized status. Because of this accomplishment, Deer became the first woman to chair the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin.
Her political activism included running for Wisconsin secretary of state in 1978 and again in 1982. In 1992, she became the first Native American woman in Wisconsin to run for U.S. Congress. In 1993, Deer was tapped by President Bill Clinton to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, which oversees the BIA. While in office from 1993-1997, she helped set federal policy for more than 550 federally recognized tribes.
While serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, Deer helped get federal recognition for 226 Alaska Native villages, as well as American Indian tribes in Michigan and California.
Akiak Native Community Chief Mike Williams, based in Akiak, Alaska, told Native News Online that he will miss Deer, with whom he has remained a close friend for decades. Williams said he talked to her on a monthly basis.
“Because of her fighting for our federal recognition, we benefited greatly because of the aid that comes to us as recognized tribes,” Williams said. “She was a fighter for sovereignty. In our conversations, we always talked about the restoration process. She fought so hard to have the Menominee tribe, her tribe, restored to full federal recognition status.”
Deer was seen as a trailblazer for Native American women who prior to her headng Indian Affairs did not think about gaining positions of power in government.
On Wednesday, Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe), the highent elected Native American woman in the United States, issued a statement on the death of Deer.
"Ada Deer was a trailblazer, an auntie who paved the way for so many Native women - like me - to fight for change and justice. Losses of this magnitude give impetus to current leaders to fill in the gaps and continue leading the work that has been laid by those who came before us," Flanagan said. "If it weren't for Ada Deer showing us what is possible and her drive for change, I, and so many other Native leaders, would not be in the position that I am today."
During her time serving as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, Deer became friends with Gwen Carr (Cayuga Nation), Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, who worked on Native American affairs in the Clinton White House.
“Her accomplishments as an advocate, warrior, and all the things that she has done for Indian country and bringing the Native and non-Native world together in more understanding," Carr said to Native News Online on Wednesday. "Those are things that are out there that the public can see, but she is also the woman that I knew so well. She was part of my family."
Carr reminisced on the times when Deer would visit her in Appleton, Wisconsin. Carr says their friendship was one of a kind and one she will never forget.
“She always believed in me a lot of times when I didn't believe in myself. She took that incredibly wonderful quality about her and applied it in many different places. And in many different ways,” Carr said. “The Creator gave her many gifts but the biggest one was her faith in the good. And her ability to stand for what was right in the middle of what was wrong. Not lose her footing and not lose her vision ever.”
As well, Deer served on the board of directors for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). John Echohawk (Pawnee) remembers Deer for her dedicated service to NARF and to Indian Country.
“Ada Deer was a great leader," Echohawk said in an email to Native News Online. "We represented her when she led the Menominee tribal restoration movement back in the 1970s. She later served on our board of directors and became the board chairwoman. And, of course, she later became the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, where she did great things for Native Americans."
As an educator and social worker, she taught classes at the UW-Madison School of Social Work, and in 2000, she became the director of the university's American Indian Studies Program. Earlier this month, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers proclaimed August 7, Deer’s 88th birthday, as Ada Deer Day in Wisconsin.
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