Sokaogon Chippewa Community News

Ada Deer Walks On

By Frank Vaisvilas and Hannah Kirby, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Photograph by Norman Lenburg, 1978, S13856

Ada Deer, a prominent Native American leader in Wisconsin and nationwide, died last Tuesday night at age 88.

Deer was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, living a life filled with firsts and paving the way for other Native leaders.

“Ada was one-of-a-kind,” Gov. Tony Evers said on social media. “We will remember her as a trailblazer, a changemaker, and a champion for Indigenous communities. But above all, (my wife) Kathy and I will always remember Ada for her kindness and compassion.”

Deer was the first woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the first woman to serve as chairperson of the Menominee Nation and the first Native American woman to run for Congress in Wisconsin.

Deer was instrumental in restoring federal recognition for her tribe, and also fought for the sovereignty of all Indigenous nations.

“I speak up. I speak out,” she said in 2018. “It’s not like I plotted and planned. I just had this general goal. I want to do and I want to be and I want to help. And I’ve been able to do it. People think you’re born this way, but you create your way as you go along. No. Your life evolves.”

Born in Keshena, Wisconsin, in 1935, Deer grew up on a Menominee Indian Reservation. She lived in a log cabin near the Wolf River where there was no running water or electricity.

In 1957, she became the first Menominee citizen to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work.

She went on to become the first Native American to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University

When federal recognition ended for the Menominee tribe in 1961, the reservation became the poorest county in the state, lacking the tax base to support basic services, and its accounts from businesses, such as lumbering operations, were quickly drained.

In response, Deer helped to organize the Determination of Right and Unity for Menominee Shareholders, which had led the movement to return federal sovereignty to the Menominee people.

They worked to eventually create the new Menominee Nation after President Richard Nixon signed the law restoring federal recognition to the tribe in 1973.

Deer was the first woman to serve as chairperson of the Menominee Nation, from 1974 to 1976.


“Against all odds, we invented a new policy — restoration,” she told a Senate committee during her confirmation hearing to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This legislation is a vivid reminder of how great a government can be when it is large enough to admit and rectify its mistakes. It is also indicative of my tribe’s spirit, tenacity and ability to hold other sovereign entities accountable.”

Read the full story here.

Ada Deer’s celebration of life will be held today at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison at 2:00 pm. A reception will follow.

The service will be live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube.