U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs (1993–1997)

Ada Deer

CSSW connection: Ada Deer received her MSW from our School in 1961, the first Native American to do so. In 1998, in recognition of her contributions to Native American advocacy and scholarship, she was inducted into our School’s Alumni Hall of Fame; and her name is on the board of donors that graces our building’s lobby.

Path to political involvement: After earning her BSW and MSW degrees and serving as a school social worker in New York and Milwaukee, Deer, a member of the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin, entered politics at the grassroots level, becoming the spokesperson for her tribe when their federal recognition was in danger of being “terminated.” Termination of Indian tribes meant that all members would be required to live as ordinary American citizens, and the tribe would lose its right to self-government, various federal supports and protections, and most crucially, members’ rights to their land. Deer went to Washington, DC, as Menominee Tribe’s representative and lobbied to get the Menominee Restoration Act passed, a landmark piece of legislation that helped to turn the tide of federal government policy away from termination for all Native American tribes.

After becoming the first Native American activist to launch a successful campaign to restore her tribe’s land and treaty rights, Deer then became the first woman to chair the Menominee Nation. She was also the first Native American woman in Wisconsin to run for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully, though she paved the way for others.

The apogee of Deer’s political career occurred when then-President Clinton appointed her as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior. Deer was the first woman to occupy that post, which she held from 1993 to 1997. During that time, Deer, who was born in poverty and grew up in a one-room log cabin without heat or electricity, took responsibility for setting policies for the nation’s more than 550 federally recognized tribes. A month after taking office, she told hundreds of Navajos in Arizona that she was “turning the BIA upside down and shaking it.” By the time she left her post, she had overseen the transfer of greater authority to tribal governments, among other achievements.

Deer has frequently been honored for her public service, including being recognized as a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers and being inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame. At the end of 2019, she published a memoir, Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice. Coauthored with Theda Perdue, it chronicles the main events of her extraordinary life, which has spanned eight decades.


Said when she was pressing the Menominee cause in Washington:

You don’t have to collapse just because there’s a federal law in your way. Change it!

As she remarked in an interview with CSSW communications:

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.

In a 2018 interview with University of Wisconsin News, Deer said:

People are always criticizing you no matter what you do. I just did what I thought was right. And a lot of people came along with me.

Related links:

Making a Difference – OU Press

OU Press is a publisher of scholarly, regional, and general-interest books that challenge readers to discover the past, contemplate the present, and shape the future.

Ada Deer: A lifetime of firsts