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Forging Firsts: The Remarkable Life of Ada Deer

An educator, civil servant, and proud member of the Menominee Nation, Ada Deer ’57 was a political activist and trailblazer who laid the groundwork for the successes of many American women. Ada was the first Menominee Tribe member to graduate from UW–Madison, and she served as a tireless advocate for Native rights and a just society.

Ada Deer receives a UW Distinguished Alumni Award

Ada Deer Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Ada Deer passed away on Aug. 15, 2023, and UW–Madison campus and alumni leaders are recognizing her vast impact on and off campus.

“Ada Deer showed us all how to shake things up and go after what we want and deserve,” said Carla Vigue, director of tribal relations at UW–Madison. “She blazed a long and wide trail for Native women, and her support, words of encouragement and enthusiasm empowered us. Her belief in us propelled us forward. 

“She wanted us to lead and do what is best for our community," Vigue added. “Ada’s legacy will live on through those she lifted up.”

On August 7, 1935, Ada Deer ‘57 was born on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin. For the first 18 years of her life, Ada and her family of seven lived in a modest log cabin near the Wolf River. Raised by a mother with strong affinity for Native advocacy, Ada, the eldest of her siblings, excelled in school and fervently followed in her mother’s footsteps. She moved off the reservation to attend college and so began her legacy of a lifetime of firsts.

Ada decided early on that marriage and children were not among her priorities. Instead, she sustained a lifelong love of learning. She received a tribal scholarship and was the first Menominee member to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

In 1961, she became the first Native American to earn a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work. She put those degrees to use as a social worker in New York City and Minneapolis public schools and with the Peace Corps in Puerto Rico.

Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Ada was an ardent political activist. Her tireless efforts on behalf of her tribe led to the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, officially returning the Menominee Reservation to a federally recognized status. That feat led Ada to become the first woman to chair the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin, a role she held from 1974 to 1976. She ran for secretary of state in 1978 and again in 1982, and though she lost, she was not dissuaded.

“I speak up. I speak out. It’s not like I plotted and planned,” Ada shared. “I just had this general goal. I want to do, I want to be, and I want to help. And I’ve been able to do it.”

In 1992, Ada was the first Native woman in Wisconsin to run for U.S. Congress. From 1993 to 1997, she held the role of assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the Clinton Administration — again, the first Native woman to hold that position. While in office, Deer assisted in setting federal policy for more than 555 federally recognized tribes.

Ada Deer as a professor of social work at UW–Madison; courtesy of UW Archives, S13858

A dedicated social worker and educator, Ada began teaching classes at the UW School of Social Work in 1977 and held the title of distinguished lecturer until her death. Ada was also named director of the UW American Indian Studies Program in 2000 and remained in that position until 2007. During her tenure, she created the first program at UW–Madison to provide social work training on reservations.

“UW–Madison was so fortunate to have Ada Deer share her wisdom and knowledge with us,” said Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, who celebrated Deer’s 88th birthday with her last week. “She was an inspiration, mentor, and role model to so many. Ada embodied the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, and her life journey powerfully shows the incredible positive impact a single person can have on the world.”

From an early age, Ada was a champion for justice and an unstoppable force. At just four years old, Ada began going to Menominee general council meetings, because her mother wanted to expose her to the world. And it worked. Throughout her life, Ada sought change in every position she held, in every way possible. Even in retirement, she added to her legacy through service, sway, and regard for higher education. She was recognized in 2010 by the National Association of Social Workers as a social work pioneer for her work as an advocate and organizer on behalf of Native Americans.

“I want to show people who say nothing can be done in this society that it just isn't so,” Ada said. “You don't have to collapse just because there's federal law in your way. Change it!”

In 2020, Ada received the Distinguished Alumni Award — the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s highest honor and most prestigious and enduring award — for her professional achievements, contributions to society, and support of the university. She was also celebrated as a part of Alumni Park, where her inspiring story and powerful words of encouragement are featured

Photo © Andy Manis

“Ada embodied the characteristics of a distinguished UW alumna and was an inspiration to everyone whom she met,” said Sarah Schutt, executive director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. “Her energy and spirit were matched by the strength of her commitment to lift others up and hold institutions accountable to be their best. The UW alumni community mourns her passing but celebrates her life and the positive impact she made in so many ways.”

Ada maintained her ties to campus throughout her life. At 83, she took part in the UW’s Culture Keepers/Elders-in-Residence Program — an initiative focused on improving the experiences of American Indian and Alaskan Native students by hosting Native elders on campus to fortify partnerships between the university and tribal nations, provide all students with access to essential cultural resources, and improve retention and recruitment rates for Native students.

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 event held in the at the Multicultural Student Center in the Red Gym at University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 12, 2018. (Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)

The UW's Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work gave its Distinguished Alumni Award to Ada earlier this year. The school has also established an Ada E. Deer Social Justice Scholarship, which will be awarded annually to a student who exemplifies Ada’s strong commitment to social justice. The first award will be given in the fall.

In November 2019, Ada's life’s work was honored with an induction into the National Native American Hall of Fame. Working toward a more just society and making a difference to serve future generations was Ada’s legacy, and she will be profoundly missed.

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