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Ada E. Deer

Ada E. Deer

Ada E. Deer (born 1935) was the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Life-long advocate for social justice, Ada E. Deer was the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). As Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Interior Department, she was "turning the BIA upside down and shaking it," as she told hundreds of Navajos in Arizona a month after taking office in late July of 1993. For Deer, an activist for the rights of American Indians, youth, and women, turning things upside down was nothing new. Her career as a social worker, leader in numerous community and political organizations, and her successful fight to restore federal recognition to the Menominee Tribe all attest to her actions on behalf of human rights and her belief in coalition building. She told members of the Alaska Federation of Natives in August of 1993, as quoted in the Tundra Times, "I want to emphasize (that) my administration will be based on the Indian values of caring, sharing, and respect. … These values have been missing too long in the halls of government."

Deer was born in Keshena on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin on August 7, 1935. She is the eldest of five children (her siblings are Joseph Deer, Jr., Robert Deer, Ferial Skye, and Connie Deer); four other children died in infancy. Her mother, Constance Stockton (Wood) Deer, is an Anglo-American from Philadelphia and a former BIA nurse. Her father was Joseph Deer, a nearly full-blood Menominee Indian who was a former employee of the Menominee Indian Mills; he died at the age of 85 on January 10, 1994. For the first 18 years of Deer's life, her family lived in a log cabin near the Wolf River with no running water or electricity. Deer told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the hearing to confirm her as head of the BIA that "while all the statistics said we were poor, I never felt poor in spirit. My mother … was the single greatest influence on my life. She instilled in me rich values which have shaped my lifetime commitment to service."

This service began with a solid education in the Shawano and Milwaukee public schools. An outstanding student, Deer graduated in the top ten of her high school class before attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a tribal scholarship. She was one of two Native Americans out of 19,000 students, and became the first Menominee to graduate from the university. She received her B.A. in social work in 1957; and in 1961, she went on to become the first Native American to receive a M.S.W. from Columbia University.

From the time she was a graduate student and over the next ten years, Deer held several professional positions. She was employed as a social worker in New York City and Minneapolis Public Schools. She also worked with the Peace Corps in Puerto Rico. It was between the years of 1964 and 1967 that Deer had her first job with the BIA in Minnesota as Community Service Coordinator. From 1967 to 1968, she served as Coordinator of Indian Affairs in the University of Minnesota's Training Center for Community Programs. During the same time, Deer served on the Joint Commission on Mental Health of Children, Inc., and in 1969 she became a member of the national board of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., a post she held until 1975. During the summer of 1971, Deer studied at the American Indian Law Program at the University of New Mexico and then briefly attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. She left after one semester to work on an urgent tribal matter that was to become her major focus over the next several years.

Fights to Regain Menominee Tribe Recognition

As part of the U.S. government's 1950s termination policy—an attempt to assimilate Indians forcibly—the U.S. Congress passed in 1954 the Menominee Termination Act. Fully implemented by 1961, it meant the loss of federal recognition of the Menominee Tribe and along with it, the closing of membership rolls, a loss of benefits such as health and educational services, and an imposition of state jurisdiction. The Menominees were taxed and had to sell off ancestral lands to pay the bills. As Deer testified in her confirmation hearing, the Menominees "literally went from being prosperous to being Wisconsin's newest, smallest and poorest county."

Deer left law school and returned to what was now Menominee County to help gather together tribal leaders to regain control of tribal interests from a group of Menominee elites, and to attempt to reverse termination. There, in 1970, Deer and many others created a new political organization known as Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS). With assistance from the Native American Rights Fund and local legal aid organizations, Deer and other leaders of DRUMS fought to regain federal recognition for the Menominees. Their tactics included a 220-mile "march for justice" from Menominee County to the capital in Madison. As a vital part of the restoration effort, in 1972 and 1973 Deer served as vice president and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for the National Committee to Save the Menominee People and Forest, Inc.

Author Nicholas C. Peroff stated in Menominee Drums that Deer's positive attitude concerning restoration was evident in her comment to a Washington Post reporter in 1973: "Mainly I want to show people who say nothing can be done in this society that it just isn't so. You don't have to collapse just because there's federal law in your way. Change it!" The efforts of Deer and the members of DRUMS resulted in national publicity for the issue of termination and finally the introduction of a bill in Congress to reverse this policy for the Menominees. On December 22, 1973, President Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act into law.

From 1974 to 1976, Deer chaired the Menominee Tribe and headed the Menominee Restoration Committee. After its work was completed, she resigned. In 1977, she became a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Work and in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught until 1993. Deer also moved into the democratic political arena more fully at this time, serving as legislative liaison to the Native American Rights Fund from 1979 to 1981. In 1982, Deer was a candidate for Wisconsin secretary of state. In 1984, she was delegate-at-large at the Democratic National Convention and vice-chair of the National Mondale-Ferraro Presidential Campaign. In 1992, Deer almost became the first Native American woman in Congress; after a strong showing in the Second Congressional District of Wisconsin, she lost in the general election to Republican Scot Klug. May of 1993, however, brought a nomination by President Clinton from a field of four candidates (including Navajo tribal chairman Peterson Zah) to head the BIA. Congress, with overwhelming support from its members and from tribal leaders, confirmed her nomination in July of 1993.

Turning the BIA Around

With the BIA, Deer inherited an agency that is infamous for its bureaucracy and historically poor relations with tribes. Deer has had to contend with, among many issues, budget reductions for her agency; conflicts between tribes and localities over land management, water resources, and mineral rights; tribal recognition; education; and religious freedom. Deer is a strong proponent of Indian self-determination; this coincides with the BIA's planned reorganization which will shift more power to tribes. Her approach since being in office has been to visit individual Indian tribes, bringing them together with businesses, organizations, and government entities to find ways to work cooperatively, with the ultimate goal of helping tribes gain economic self-sufficiency. Deer, in her confirmation hearing, maintained: "I want to help the BIA be a full partner in the effort to fulfill the Indian agenda developed in Indian country. The best way we can do this is for the tribes to decide what needs to be done and for the tribes to do it on their own terms, with our enthusiastic support."

Deer's motto in life is "one person can make a difference." For the difference she has made in her many spheres of activity, she has received numerous awards over her lifetime. Deer was one of the Outstanding Young Women of America in 1966. In 1974, she received the White Buffalo Council Achievement Award, along with honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northland College. Other honors include the Woman of the Year Award from Girl Scouts of America (1982), the Wonder Woman Award (1982), the Indian Council Fire Achievement Award (1984), and the National Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Indian Resources Institute (1991).

There have been many achievements during Deer's tenure as Assistant Secretary. Some examples are: the recognition of over 220 Alaska Native villages, the increasing number of self-governance tribes and tribres who contract for programs previously administered by the federal government, and the reorganization of the Bureau. Deer is also active in many initiatives undertaken by the Clinton administration. She is a member of the President's Inter-Agency Council on Women which is charged with the implemention of the Platform for Action agreed upon at the UN's Fourth Conference on Women. In addition, she has testified before the UN Human Rights Committee and is the lead for the domestic activities in conjuction with the Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples working closely with the State Department.

Further Reading

Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas, Volume 1, Newport Beach, California, American Indian Publishers, 1991; 181-182.

Deer, Ada, and R. E. Simon, Jr., Speaking Out, Chicago, Children's Press Open Door Books, 1970.

Deer, Ada, "The Power Came from the People," in I Am the Fire of Time: The Voices of Native American Women, edited by Jane B. Katz, New York, Dutton, 1977.

Department of the Interior: "http://www.doi.gov/bia/adabio.html," July 18, 1997.

Hardy, Gayle J., American Women Civil Rights Activists: Bio-bibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1993; 128-134.

Native American Women, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, New York, Garland Publishing, 1993; 76-78.

Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detro it, Gale Research, 1994; 1041.

Peroff, Nicholas C., Menominee Drums: Tribal Termination and Restoration, 1954-1974, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Reference Encyclopedia of the American Indian, sixth edition, edited by Barry T. Klein, West Nyack, New York, Todd Publications, 1993; 504-505.

Cohen, Karen J., "Ada Deer Tries to Start Fire Under Bureaucracy," Wisconsin State Journal, March 20, 1994; B1.

"Female BIA Chief 'Shaking Agency Up,"' Denver Post, September 2, 1993; B2.

Richardson, Jeff, "Ada Deer: Native Values for BIA Management," Tundra Times, September 8, 1993; 1.

Worthington, Rogers, "Woman Picked to Lead Indian Bureau," Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1993; A1.

Nomination of Ada Deer: Hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, on the Nomination of Ada Deer to be Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, July 15, 1993, Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993. □

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