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Native American grassroots leader Ada Deer dies at 88


Native rights leader Ada Deer died this week. In the 1970s, she helped lead a grassroots movement to restore federal recognition for her tribe, the Menominee Nation, and later became the first woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wisconsin Public Radio's Hope Kirwan has more on her life and legacy.

HOPE KIRWAN, BYLINE: Ada Deer grew up in a log cabin along the Wolf River on the Menominee Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin. It's an experience she talked about in a Wisconsin Public Radio interview in 2020.


ADA DEER: I absorbed the love of the land, love for the animals, love for my tribal people.

KIRWAN: Federal recognition of Deer's tribe ended in 1954, when Congress passed the Menominee Termination Act. It was during a time called the Termination Era, when lawmakers worked to end federal obligations to tribes and erase Native American rights. In the '60s, Deer joined protests around the sale of her tribe's lands. She founded a grassroots group called the Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders, or DRUMS. This organization lobbied Congress to restore the tribe's federal rights, leading to the Menominee Restoration Act of 1973 and an end to the Termination Era. Deer was the first woman to serve as the chair of the Menominee tribe after it was restored. Here's Deer again in 2020.


DEER: 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.

KIRWAN: There were other first moments for Ada Deer. She was the first member of the Menominee Nation to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957. She later became the first Native American to earn a master's degree in social work from Columbia University. She went on to run unsuccessfully for Wisconsin secretary of state and made a bid for Congress in 1992, becoming the first Native woman to do so in Wisconsin. A year later, President Bill Clinton appointed Deer as an assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior, making her the first woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to lead the American Indian Studies Program in the early 2000s. Denise Wiyaka is the current director of the program. She was hired by Deer and remained friends with her long after she retired. Wiyaka said she would call Deer weekly for advice.

DENISE WIYAKA: At the end of the conversation, she would always ask me, well, tell me something good now. So, you know, it was so sweet how she would always change the mood of the conversation to something good.

KIRWAN: Wiyaka described Deer as a whirlwind - someone who was always involved in many things - and she says Deer was an inspirational figure for Native Americans.

WIYAKA: Because she showed them that you could change things for the better.

KIRWAN: Last week, in honor of her 88th birthday, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers declared August 7 as Ada Deer Day in Wisconsin. Deer died in hospice on Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Hope Kirwan in La Crosse, Wis.

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Hope Kirwan
Hope Kirwan left KBIA in September 2015.Hope Kirwan is a reporter/producer for KBIA's Health & Wealth Desk. Originally from Macomb, IL, she is a graduate of the University of Missouri with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Previously she worked as a student reporter for KBIA and also reported for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb.