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Opinion. When Ada Deer (Menominee) walked on this past Tuesday, Indian Country lost not only a fierce warrior, but also a pathfinder who moved the country from the Termination Era to new heights of tribal sovereignty. 

Deer passed away after a lengthy illness under hospice care. A mutual friend told me that Deer was determined to make her 88th birthday on August 8th. She lived another nine days past that.  

While Deer spent decades being a strong warrior for Native Americans, she should be remembered for paving the way for Native women to serve at high-ranking positions within the federal government. 

She ran for Congress in 1992 in a congressional district that included Madison, Wisconsin. Deer was the first Native American woman to ever run for Congress. Her campaign slogan was “No one runs like Ada Deer.” She was narrowly defeated by the Republican incumbent Scott Klug.

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Her strong run for Congress caught the eyes of those in the Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton chose her to become the assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. When she was sworn into office, she became the first woman to ever hold the position. 

Nedra Darling (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation), who served as public affairs director at Indian Affairs for many years, reminisced with me on Wednesday about the influence Deer had once she arrived in Washington.

“I loved her fierceness and her devoted loyalty,” Darling told me. “She was a great Native leader that brought so many Native women along with her—well, those who could stay up with her that is.” 

During her first year as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Deer was instrumental in ensuring the Alaska villages became “recognized” as sovereign tribes by the federal government. Prior to 1993, Alaska political leaders, including the governor and the state’s Congressional delegation — Sen. Frank Murkowski, Sen. Ted Stevens, and Rep. Don Young — were adamantly opposed to the Alaska tribal entities becoming federally recognized. 

During her first year as the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Deer was determined to make federal recognition for Alaska tribes a reality. Each year, the Indian Affairs office publishes a list of federally recognized tribes. When the time came to release the 1993 list, she included all 226 Alaska tribes.

Since then, Congress and courts have upheld Deer’s decision. 

Akiak Native Community Chief Mike Williams told Native News Online on Wednesday he appreciated how Deer fought for federal recognition of the Alaska tribes. Through the years, Deer and Williams remained friends and had monthly telephone conversations that often included the topic of tribal sovereignty and the restoration of federal recognition status for deserving tribes. 

In her autobiography, Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice, Deer writes about the stark reality of being Native American in the 1990s.

“I was surprised by the lack of interest in, ignorance of, and even hostility toward Native people at the highest levels of government. When budget cuts came, Indian programs suffered disproportionately under the acquiescence and perhaps the secretary of the Interior…Whenever an opportunity arose, people like Senator Glade Gordon and other like-minded members of Congress tried to impoverish Native people and deny tribal sovereignty,” Deer writes.

Even when then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt asked Deer to reduce the BIA’s budget, she resisted and asked for an increase. Needless to say, she and Babbitt had a contentious relationship because she held firm to her belief Indian Country deserved more funding, not less.

Born in poverty on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, Deer’s pathfinding did not begin when she got to Washington. It was started when she led the fight against the termination of the Menominee tribe. 

Her work on behalf of the Menominee led to the Menominee Restoration Act of 1973, signed by President Richard Nixon, that officially returned the Menominee Reservation to federally recognized status. Because of this accomplishment, Deer became the first woman to chair the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

Upon learning of Deer’s passing, people throughout Indian Country reflected on her pathfinding accomplishments. 

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) posted on social media: "I’m so sad to hear of Ada Deer's passing, a public servant who spent her life uplifting Indigenous communities. She blazed a trail for women at @Interior and I am proud to stand on her shoulders. I send my deep condolences to her Menominee relatives and all who called her friend."

“Today we mourn the loss of Ada Deer,” stated Marvin Weatherwax, chairman of the Coalition of Large Tribes (COLT) and a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “All of Native America lost a warrior who fought for all of us for so many decades. We must fight just as hard as she did. Our sovereignty depends on it.”

Weatherwax is correct. The fight continues to preserve tribal sovereignty, and we must continue the struggle against injustices as did Ada Deer. She provided this generation of Indian Country leaders a pathway to strengthen tribal sovereignty.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].