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

FILE - Ada Deer, assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs, meets reporters at the Interior Department, Sept. 7, 1995, in Washington. Deer, an esteemed Native American leader from Wisconsin and the first woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has died at age 88. She passed away Tuesday evening, Aug. 15, 2023, from natural causes. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File) (Charles Tasnadi, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MADISON, Wis. – 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 Tuesday evening from natural causes, members of her family confirmed on Wednesday. She had entered hospice care last month.

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“She passed last night in peace surrounded by loved ones,” said her nephew Joe Deer, one of her primary caretakers. “We miss her, but what a life she led.”

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,” her godson Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, 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.

To her family, Deer is remembered as kind, generous and a calming presence.

“She literally was the most giving person that I have ever known, and she never expected anything back in return," said Joe Deer. “I felt quite privileged to be so extraordinarily close to her.”

Earlier this 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.”

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

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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. Follow Harm at twitter.com/HarmVenhuizen.