Published on January 25, 2013 by Amy
Ada Deer (born 1935) is a Native American advocate and scholar who served as head of the United States’ Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997.
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A member of the Menominee tribe, Deer was born in Keshena, Wisconsin. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Master of Social Work from the New York School of Social Work (later Columbia University School of Social Work).
Following completion of her graduate work, Deer returned to the Midwest to be closer to the Menominee Nation, settling in Minneapolis. She found few local services in place for Native Americans living in urban settings and dedicated herself to advocating on their behalf with federal authorities.
Since the “Termination Era” of the 1950s and 1960s (resulting in reduced federal oversight of Native American affairs), the Menominee tribe had been governed by a corporate body called Menominee Enterprise, Inc.. Menominee Enterprises, Inc. was controlled by a voting trust and Menominee tribal members had no shares in the corporation. Four of the voting trust members were Menominee, however, it took five votes in order for action to be taken. In the 1960s and 1970s there was renewed Congressional involvement in rebuilding tribal infrastructure, both socially and economically. During that time, Deer became involved in a group called DRUMS (Determination of Right and Unity for Menominee Shareholders) in opposition to Menominee Enterprise’s proposed sale of former Menominee lands. At first, Deer encountered difficulty with Wayne Aspinall, an Interior Committee chairman and supporter of termination. She took frequent trips to Washington, and Deer was denied even speaking with Aspinall. However, Aspinall was voted out of the office, and Deer raised publicity as well as support for the Menominee cause.
Her efforts, along with many other Menominees, played a part in bringing the Termination Era to a close, as December 1972 saw President Richard Nixon sign the Menominee Restoration Act. This legislation restored official federal recognition to the Menominee tribe. From 1974 to 1976, Deer served as chair of the Menominee Restoration Committee.
In 1993, Deer was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Interior by President Bill Clinton. She served as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997. During this period, she was a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. From January to May 1997, she served as Chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Before and after her term in the BIA, Deer served on the National Support Committee of the Native American Rights Fund. She has served as chair of the NSC and chair of the NARF board of directors.
Deer ran for Wisconsin’s secretary of state in both 1978 and 1982. She served as vice-chair of the Walter Mondale/Geraldine Ferraro presidential campaign in 1984. In 1992, she ran for a seat in the United States Congress in Wisconsin’s Second District. She won the Democratic primary without “soft money” funding from political action committees. Following her primary win, a local newspaper ran a photo of Deer proudly holding a sign reading “Me Nominee” in a note to her tribal heritage.
Deer has taught in the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1977, currently holding the title of Distinguished Lecturer. She is also currently the director of the American Indian Studies Department at UW–Madison. During her tenure, she co-founded Milwaukee’s Indian Community School and created the first program to provide social work training on Native American reservations. After taking four years off from 1993 to 1997 to serve as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Deer returned to campus, where she was appointed director of the Department of American Indian Studies in 1999. In addition, she is a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.