Ada Deer, influential Native American leader from Wisconsin, dies at 88

Born August 7, 1935, on the Menominee reservation in Keshena, Deer was the first woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is remembered as a trailblazer and fierce advocate for tribal sovereignty.

Associated Press

August 16, 2023

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Ada Deer stands and waves with both of her hands.

Ada Deer, a champion of Native American rights and the first Native elder for the UW-Madison Elder-In-Residence Program, greets the attendees of a Native November feast on Nov. 12, 2018. Deer died in hospice care of natural causes on Aug. 15, 2023. (Credit: Courtesy of the Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association and Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Ada Deer, an esteemed Native American leader from Wisconsin and the first woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has died at age 88.

Deer passed away on the evening of Aug. 15 from natural causes, her godson Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, confirmed on Aug. 16. She had entered hospice care in July.

Born August 7, 1935, on the Menominee reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin, Deer is remembered as a trailblazer and fierce advocate for tribal sovereignty. She played a key role in reversing Termination Era policies of the 1950s that took away the Menominee people’s federal tribal recognition.

“Ada was one of those extraordinary people who would see something that needed to change in the world and then make it her job and everyone else’s job to see to it that it got changed,” Wikler said. “She took America from the Termination Era to an unprecedented level of tribal sovereignty.”

Deer was the first member of the Menominee Tribe to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to become the first Native American to obtain a master’s in social work from Columbia University, according to both schools’ websites.

In the early 1970s, Deer organized grassroots political movements that fought against policies that had rolled back Native American rights. The Menominee Tribe was placed under the control of a corporation in 1961, but Deer’s efforts led President Richard Nixon in 1973 to restore the tribe’s rights and repeal termination policies.

Soon after, she was elected head of the Menominee Restoration Committee and began working as a lecturer in American Indian studies and social work at the University of Wisconsin. She unsuccessfully ran twice for Wisconsin’s secretary of state and in 1992 narrowly lost a bid to become the first Native American woman elected to U.S. Congress.

President Bill Clinton appointed Deer in 1993 as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she served for four years and helped strengthen federal protections and rights for hundreds of tribes.

She remained active in academia and Democratic politics in the years before her death and was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame in 2019.

Earlier in the month, Gov. Tony Evers proclaimed Aug. 7, Deer’s 88th birthday, as Ada Deer Day in Wisconsin.

“Ada was one-of-a-kind,” Evers posted Wednesday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “We will remember her as a trailblazer, a changemaker, and a champion for Indigenous communities.”

Plans for Deer’s funeral had not been announced as of the morning of Aug. 16. Members of her family did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press.

This story has been updated to correct that Deer entered hospice care in July, not four days before her death.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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