Tribal Sovereignty champion Ada Deer dies at 88

Menominee tribal member Ada Deer, one of the most skilled and savvy political advocates for tribal sovereignty in American history dies at 88. (Photo Wikipedia)

FITCHBURG, WI—Referred to as an activist by most media sources, Menominee tribal member Ada Deer was one of the most skilled and savvy political advocates for tribal sovereignty in American history. She was the first Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. Deer passed away from natural causes in hospice care on August 15 at Fitchburg, WI, at the age of 88.
“She passed last night in peace surrounded by loved ones,” nephew Joe Deer said. “We miss her, but what a life she led.”
Her Godson, Ben Wikler, Chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Partys said, “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. She took America from the Termination Era to an unprecedented level of tribal sovereignty.”
When Deer was 19 years old her tribe was one of two tribes terminated by the federal government (the other in Klamath, OR). Battling this injustice consumed her life for the next twenty years. She was determined to restore federally recognized tribal status to her people, to reestablish their tribal sovereignty.
“As Menominee,” Deer told Congress, “we collectively discovered the kind of determination that human beings only find in times of impending destruction.”
The battle would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court in 1968, where the Court ruled that the termination of the tribe in 1954, because of treaty specific language, did not extinguish their hunting and fishing rights. This ruling served as a springboard for the battle in Congress, and on December 22, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the bill which restored federal recognition to the Menominee, perhaps the single biggest victory for tribal sovereignty in American history, not only because of the restoration, but because it signified the end of the Termination Era, and a more supportive and respectful federal policy toward tribes, spearheaded by the Nixon Administration, but later culminating in the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 during the Carter Administration.
Deer was born in Kenesha, WI, in 1935. She received her masters in social work from the New York School of Social Work in 1961. She then served with the Peace Corps in Puerto Rico for two years before returning to her own tribe in Wisconsin as a social worker.
Deer and Jim White formed DRUMS (Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders) in 1970 to oppose non-Indian land development on traditionally Menominee land.
The DRUMS members slowly wrested control of the local land board from non-Native control, and after stopping the land development in 1972, they went after the big prize, lobbying Congress for tribal recognition and restoration, Deer rolled up her sleeves and worked tirelessly with member of Congress, crafting legal briefs advocating for the return of her tribe’s sovereignty.
Despite having achieved her political successes working with a Republican Administration, Deer showed how well respected she was on both sides of the aisle in Washington, when President Clinton made her the first woman to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. She became a regular fixture on high powered boards determining Indigenous policies, both foreign and domestic, like the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Deer told NPR: “One of the most important things that I’ve done with my life is to, first of all, fight for, be a part of that struggle and help people become knowledgeable about their tribal responsibilities and that they could help in bringing about significant change.”
The Menominee are said to have lived in the Wisconsin area since about 800 AD. They are an Algonkian people, cousins of the Ojibwe and Cheyenne. Their first contact with Europeans came in 1634, and during all that time they were known principally as a people of peace.
A bad historical turn forced Deer to become one of the most powerful advocates for tribal sovereignty of the 20th Century. She proved to be the right person in the right place at the right time. It took twenty years, but in the end, she was the main force in restoring her people to their rightful status, in keeping them from being lost to assimilation during the Termination Era.
In 2019, Deer was inducted into the Native American Hall of Fame. In 2023 the state of Wisconsin declared August 7 Ada Deer Day.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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