Scholar and Native Rights Trailblazer Ada Deer Dies at 88

By Ardith Van Riper

     Ada Deer, Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, died Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.  She was the first woman to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department and the first woman chair of her tribe.  On Nov. 15, 1994, the Ho-Chunk Nation Constitution became an official document as it was endorsed by the President of the Ho-Chunk Nation JoAnn Jones, Vice President Wilfrid Cleveland, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Ada Deer, and members of the Ho-Chunk Legislature.

     The official constitution changed the nation’s name from Wisconsin Winnebago to the Ho-Chunk Nation.

     During the 1994 signing ceremony at the facility formerly known as Rainbow Casino, Ada Deer said, “The new constitution will give the Ho-Chunk Nation an independent form of government with separation of powers and a system with checks and balances.

     “The makeup of which includes General Council, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.  Under the new constitution, the Ho-Chunk Nation will be able to establish a tribal court system and to apply laws of the tribe.”

     Deer went on to say, “You’ve changed your name from Winnebago, which may have been a Chippewa word, to a word from your own language, Ho-Chunk.”  Ada challenged the tribal members to read, understand, and honor the new constitution. “You can amend it, change it, but it is a living document by which you carry out your authority as a sovereign nation.  It’s a lot of work to be a Ho-Chunk, so do your homework.  Read, understand, and implement the constitution.”

     Deer was born in Keshena, Wisconsin, and spent her childhood on the Menominee reservation.  She attended Shawano High School, became the first member of her tribe to graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and was the first Native American to receive a master’s degree from the School of Social Work at Columbia University.

     Additionally, she was a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government.  Her academic honors include Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

     She led the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, co-founded the Indian Community School in Milwaukee, and chaired the board of the Native American Rights Fund.

     Ada Deer was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.  The position included overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The Bureau had 12,000 employees who provided services and administered trust responsibilities for more than 500 native nations and Alaska Native villages.  Approximately one million members of federally recognized tribes lived on or near the 56 million acres of Indian trust lands served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

     She was tireless in her work in advocating for Native American rights.  Ada Deer was instrumental in the 1973 restoration of her tribe following its termination in 1958.  During the termination, the Menominee tribe became a county instead of a reservation.

     In her capacity as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, she signed off on federal recognition of hundreds of Alaskan tribes that had been fighting for sovereignty. 

     On Aug. 7, 2023, Ada Deer turned 88 years old.  She left hospice care that day and attended a celebration that drew leaders from Wisconsin state and the Menominee tribe.  Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, United States Senator Tammy Baldwin, and Menominee Chairwoman Gena Kakkak all paid tribute to Deer.  Gov. Evers proclaimed Aug. 7, 2023, “Ada Deer Day.”