Alumna Ada Deer Receives Martin Luther King, Jr. Award

January 24, 2020

The 1961 MSW graduate and the first woman to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs was honored in her home state for working in the spirit of America’s foremost civil rights leader.

On January 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, alumna Ada Deer was one of two recipients of the City-County Humanitarian Award from Dane County, Wisconsin, and the City of Madison. She shared the combined award with recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and community organizer Kenneth Cole.

Announcing this year’s winners on January 17, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi cited Deer’s “dedication to service” and  “lifelong commitment to Native rights and education,” while City of Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said:

“Ada Deer has been a leader and mentor to thousands of Wisconsinites for many years. She is a true inspiration.”

Recipients of the combined City-County Humanitarian Award are selected by the City-County Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission for reflecting the values of the civil rights leader.

Raised in poverty on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, Ada Deer is our School’s first Native American graduate. In 1971, she became a leader for a grassroots movement of the Menominee people that resulted in a historic reversal of unjust federal Indian policy and restored federal tribal recognition. Other tribes followed this precedent in asserting their tribal sovereignty. Deer also became the first female tribal chair in Menominee history.

In 1992, Deer became the first American Indian woman to win the nomination of a major political party for Congress, when she won the Democratic nomination for Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district. After losing the general election, she applied for and became the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Clinton Administration—the first woman to hold the position. During her tenure, 226 Alaskan Native villages as well as American Indian tribes in California and Michigan received federal recognition.

In addition to her political activism, Deer enjoyed an academic career at UW-Madison’s School of Social Work, where she taught many future social workers about the needs of communities of color and low-income people. More recently, she directed UW-Madison’s American Indian Studies Program.

Deer recently published a memoir with University of Oklahoma Press, Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice, which was one the titles included in our 2019 books roundup.