3 Questions for…Alumna Ada Deer
You have only to spend a few moments in the company of alumna Ada Deer (MSW’61) to realize you’re in the presence of a legend. Raised on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, she is a social worker who became head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the highest ranking federal official with responsibility for setting policies for the nation’s more than 570 federally recognized tribes. Along the way, she accomplished many “firsts”: first member of the Menominee to graduate from University of Wisconsin-Madison (with a BA, majoring in Social Work); first American Indian to receive an MSW from Columbia; first American Indian activist to launch a successful campaign to restore federal recognition of her tribe, and then first woman to chair the Menominee Nation; and first American Indian to win the primary of a major political party.
Deer has enjoyed a distinguished career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for more than two decades. Among other posts, she served as a lecturer in UW-Madison’s Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work, where she is credited with expanding the options available in its field placement program. She also helped to found (and later served as director of) UW-Madison’s American Indian Studies program.
Deer has garnered countless honors for her exemplary career, including recognition as a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers and induction into the National Native American Hall of Fame as well as our school’s Hall of Fame. Of late she has been receiving kudos for her memoir, Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice, published in 2019. Coauthored with Theta Perdue, it chronicles the main events of her extraordinary life. We are honored to have her as a guest for our “Three Questions” series. She spoke with CSSW Communications about the social justice gene she inherited from her mother, her successes in sparking social change, and her lifelong passion for justice. This interview has been edited and condensed.
#1: What are the formative experiences and influences that led you to get involved with the work to which you’ve dedicated your life?
My mother was my first and most formative influence. She was from a well-off white Quaker family in Philadelphia but a born activist, a gene she passed on to me. She decided to become a nurse, first working in Appalachia and then at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She became totally entranced by Sioux culture. Then she moved on to work on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. That’s where she met my father, a Menominee Indian. They married and raised five children. We lived in a one-room log cabin without electricity, heat, or telephones. I helped my mother care for my siblings, and I watched the respectful way she gave advice and comfort to the Indian women who came to her and asked questions about their health.
From an early age I absorbed a deep love of our land—the forests, our Wolf River, our people. Back in those days, everyone was trying to “civilize Indians.” My mother told me, when I was still under 10: “You are an Indian. You were put on this earth for a purpose. You are to help your people.” She crusaded for Indian people and their rights. She told me, “Indians have something the whites want: the lands, the water, the fish. But we’re not going anywhere. We were here first.” My mother was relentless in her campaign to impress upon all of her children the value and importance of education: four out of five of us got degrees from UW-Madison and have graduate degrees. All through college, my mother kept bugging me about my tribal responsibilities. In 1970, I went back to help lead the fight to restore federal recognition of the tribe, to preserve our land and identity.
Another early formative experience was my participation in Badger Girls State, a program run by the American Legion Auxiliary to teach high school students in Wisconsin about how state government functions. As a delegate, I spent a week living on UW-Madison’s campus—my first time there. I met people from across the state and received an in-depth tour of the State Capitol. I learned a lot about the inner workings of state government. That course on government should be in every curriculum across the land, since so many people don’t know how their government works. I developed a deep respect for government and gained knowledge that proved invaluable to my lifetime advocacy work.
Finally, my identity as a social worker is very important to me. Several of my social work professors were major influences. As an undergraduate, I took inspiration from Professor Helen Clarke. She had been a social worker in settlement houses in New York City before coming to UW-Madison, where she helped to establish the social work program. At Columbia, I was very inspired by Professor Richard Cloward. He was a master of his content—very disciplined in his thinking, and not arrogant. I took his course on race and social class. These are extremely difficult topics, but he helped us formulate a set of concepts that subsequently proved invaluable in my work with people. Another towering figure was Professor Alfred Khan, who taught the history of social work. It was fabulous! I was so happy to sit across the table from him at the gathering for the 100th anniversary of the School.
Question #2: Is there some success that stands out in your mind that you’re really proud of?
By far, my work in getting the Menominee Restoration Act passed. In 1954, the Termination Act was forced upon the Menominee, making us the first of 100 tribes to be terminated. We lost our right to govern ourselves as well as various federal supports and protections and, most crucially, the title to our land. It was a cultural, economic, and political disaster that struck deep into the hearts of the Menominee—a violation of our treaties and a betrayal of the government’s responsibilities to our tribe. No one understood what the impact of termination would be. But then people died. They suffered a loss of identity, livelihood, and opportunity.
Getting the Menominee Restoration Act passed in 1973 was a stellar achievement for our tribe as it meant protection for our tribal lands and our very existence. This kind of activism had never been tried before, and no one thought we could pull it off. I was the right person at the right time and became the spark plug for the Restoration Act, but it was a group effort. We were a small tribe with no money, but we had wonderful legal help from the Native American Rights Fund and Wisconsin Judicare, and we worked together to develop the Restoration Act from the grass up. We had many helpers, including VISTA volunteers, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Rep. David Obie, Sens. Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire, and former congressman Melvin Laird. It was hard work trudging through the halls of Congress, but we lobbied it through. The Act passed in both Houses, and the vote in the House of Representatives was a stunning 404–3!
Something else I take pride in is advocating for the inclusion of people of color in the organizations I serve. For instance, I was on the board of Common Cause, an organization formed under President Lyndon Johnson by John Gardner, a wonderful, caring public intellectual, to advocate for minorities and the working poor in urban areas. I noticed that the board had no people of color, and I suggested we include some. The same thing happened when I served on the board for another of Gardner’s initiatives, the President’s Commission on White House Fellows, a highly selective program founded under LBJ’s leadership, in support of high-level government internships. I expanded their outreach efforts to include more applicants of color. At one point, we had two Puerto Rican candidates, a man and a woman, both excellent, vying for the fellowship. “We already have one Puerto Rican,” my fellow board members said. “That’s true,” I said, “but look at the résumé of the other person. We could have two!” Later, when I was recruited for the board of the Girl Scouts of America, I pointed out that their calendar showed girls from all over the country, but all of them were white. Nowadays you see girls of all colors on Girl Scout calendars.
Third, I’m proud of having made a difference as a faculty member at UW-Madison’s School of Social Work. During my tenure, I taught a course in Social Work in Multicultural Settings and expanded field placements at agencies of color such as the Urban League (an organization that has a special place in my heart) and Centro Hispano. I remember a young student from Korea who wanted to work with poor people. I placed her with the Salvation Army, explaining that she would get an exposure to American poverty there. I still run into some of my former students. Many are doing great work now.
#3: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned doing this work and what do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
I’ve learned that one person can make a difference and be the spark. If I hadn’t decided I was going to do something about the challenges my tribe was facing, I’m not sure it would have happened. Looking back over my life, I’m very pleased. I haven’t wasted my talents. It’s important for people to develop a passion; for me it was and is a passion for justice. My sense of justice has been an ever-expanding circle of awareness. First I learned about betrayals and broken treaties foisted on American Indians. Then I got angry about the oppression of women. Then, learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, I became more aware of the oppression of Blacks.
In all of my activism efforts, I am accustomed to succeeding and not failing—but along the way I had to learn that you may not succeed the first time. You need to persevere if you want to make a difference. As I said back in the days when we were pressing for Menominee restoration in Washington: “You don’t have to collapse just because there’s a federal law in your way. Change it!”