Home Wisconsin Ada Deer, beloved Indigenous leader, dies at 88

Ada Deer, beloved Indigenous leader, dies at 88

Ada Deer

Ada Deer, a longtime leader and representative of Indigenous communities in Wisconsin and the United States, has died. She was 88.

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler posted the news on CaringBridge and Twitter.

Born in Keshena, Wisconsin, in 1935, Ada Deer was the first Menominee undergraduate to receive a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957. She became the first Native American to receive a Master of Social Work from Columbia University in 1961.

She led the successful campaign to restore federal recognition of the Menominee Tribe. As head of the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, she participated in the development of United States policies on international human rights and supported a strong national position on the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere.

In 1992, she became the first Native American woman in Wisconsin to run for Congress, winning the Democratic primary without political action committee funding. The following year, Deer was appointed the head of the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the first Native American woman to hold that position. While in office, Deer helped set federal policy for more than 550 federally recognized tribes, approved tribal-state gaming compacts, extended recognition to 12 tribes, and settled a century-long border dispute with the Crow Tribe that restored tribal lands and provided compensation for lost coal reserves and revenue.

Both before and after her years in office, Deer taught classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work. She developed groundbreaking classes in the 1970s on Native American issues and multiculturalism, and created the first program to provide social work training on reservations. She also co-founded the Indian Community School in Milwaukee, organized leadership workshops for Indian women, and helped to implement Indian participation in the Peace Corps.

In January 2000, Deer became director of the American Indian Studies Program at UW-Madison. In 2007, Deer received the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Robert and Belle Case LaFollette Award for Distinction in Public Service. She was on the inaugural list of Wisconsin’s Most Influentiual Native American Leaders in 2020.

Deer entered hospice on August 1. Governor Tony Evers declared August 7, her 88th birthday, “Ada Deer Day” in the state of Wisconsin.