Ada Deer

woman reading at a podium
Ada Deer

Photo c/o USDA, taken by Bob Nichols

Quick Facts
First woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
Place of Birth:
Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin
Date of Birth:
August 7, 1935

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

For the past several decades, our country has witnessed an astonishing number of firsts accomplished by American women. Ada Deer laid the foundation for the successes of many modern American women through her political trailblazing and activism.

Ada Deer was born August 7, 1935 on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin. From a young age, she looked up to her mother: a strong-willed Anglo-American woman from Philadelphia who learned about Native American cultures while serving as a nurse for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Appalachia and South Dakota before moving to Wisconsin and marrying a Menominee man.

Ada’s mother began bringing her to Menominee general council meetings when she was only four years old. “Our mother did her best to expose us to the world,” Deer remembers, and attributes her confidence and convictions to her mother’s influence. “My mother was a fierce crusader for Indian rights,” says Deer.

Deer excelled in school and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a tribal scholarship. She became the first member of the Menominee Tribe to graduate from the University and the first Native American to earn an MS in Social Work from Columbia University. Ada worked as a social worker in New York City, Minneapolis, and Puerto Rico before landing a position as Community Service Coordinator with the BIA in Minnesota in 1964.

Oppressive 1950’s legislation served as a catalyst for Ada to lobby on behalf of the Menominee people. She organized a grassroots movement to help end the Termination Era and restore her tribe’s rights that had been taken away from them in 1954. As a result of this success, she became the first woman to chair the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin.

Deer’s political activism continued as she ran for Wisconsin’s secretary of state in 1978 and 1982. In 1992 she nearly became the first American Indian woman elected to the U.S. Congress, losing narrowly to Republican Scott L. Klug. In 1993, President Clinton appointed Deer to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, heading the BIA. This position allowed her to reform the Bureau and help set federal policy for more than 555 American Indian tribes.

Deer also served as chair for the Native American Rights Fund and organized leadership workshops for American Indian women. As an educator, she directed the American Indian Studies Program at UW-Madison and earned recognition by the National Association of Social Workers as a Social Work Pioneer in 2010. She was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame in November 2019.

Deer recently participated in a UW-Madison initiative to improve the experiences of indigenous students by hosting Native elders on campus for meaningful cultural and educational exchanges. At the age of 84, she continues to be involved in strengthening American Indian communities and education.

Learn more about her life and legacy here:

Last updated: August 31, 2020