UW-Madison Honors Ada Deer, Co-author of “Making a
Human Rights Champion
|Ada Deer at the discussion of her Book “Making a
Difference” in UW Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall on
‘You’re leaving?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes. I’ve been here for several years now and nothing changes. I make suggestions and nothing happens. I think we could
improve our services to the tribal people here.’ They didn’t know what that meant. They didn’t want to know. They said, ‘You just got here.’ I said, ‘Well nothing’s
happening.’ This one woman looked at me as if she was giving me this big piece of important information. She said, ‘Well think about your retirement.’ I was in my
late 20s. I was at the BIA for 3-4 years. I liked the idea of learning and I wanted to know how the big bureaucracy works. I found out how it didn’t work. I said, ‘Well, I
haven’t even done what I am going to do in life. This is not what I expected. That’s why I am leaving.’”
After a brief stint working on an Indian education research project at the University of Minnesota, Deer went to work as a social worker for the Minneapolis school
system. She was assigned to a junior high school in the same neighborhood where she had worked for Neighborhood House. In many of her previous jobs, Deer
had followed her community organizing and outreach instincts and so, as a social worker, she wanted to meet the families of the students where they lived.
“I started going out making home visits,” Deer recalled. “They gave me a contact list of families. I went to visit them and they were surprised to see me. I told them I
was a social worker and worked for the school system. I was visiting them because their children were in the schools. I developed some really good relationships.
Parents would call. There was one Black parent whom I really clicked with. When she couldn’t send her kids to school, she would call the office up and tell them the
kids weren’t going to be at school that day and they should pass this on to me. I wasn’t getting some of this information. Then I decided would meet with the
principal. He never called me and so I called him. I told him what I was doing and I felt it was really important for the teachers to make some home visits to some of
their students. I said this was a good step for the schools to take because it is important for the teachers to understand their students and see what kind of life they
had. Well that didn’t go anywhere. I said, ‘Here we go again. I’m not going to put up with this either.’”
Deer resigned from the school district, writing to the superintendent about the need for the schools to reach out to the community. She went on to work in the Indian
Upward Bound Program at UW-Stevens Point. Bob Powless, an Oneida whom Deer met at UW-Madison, directed the program and wanted Deer to work with the high
school students in the program. Deer exposed the students to loftier possibilities.
“The chancellor of the university at that time was Lee Dreyfus,” Deer said. “He was so much fun. He had this red vest on. Other universities could have had the
Upward Bound program and maybe some of them did. But he showed some leadership in approving the program. They had the standard classwork. And then we had
field trips. And we also had fun. I had met Maria Tallchief somewhere and I found out that she was in Chicago, Illinois. She is an Osage Indian. She was a ballerina.
She studied in Russia. She was really high up in that world. I called her up and told her who I was. She vaguely remembered my name. I invited her to campus and
she said that she would fly up. She had this little private plane that she flew up in. She spent time talking with the students and visiting with them. I told the students
that Maria was a world-famous ballerina. They didn’t know what a ballerina was. ‘This is a type of dance. They put on these slippers and then they have to dance on
their toes. And they go around the world and perform on these big stages.’ Now they understood.”
Deer decided to go to UW Law School and was admitted. The termination of the Menominee as a federally-recognized tribe was approved while Deer was a UW-
Madison undergrad. Now as she entered law school, the negative impact of termination was wreaking havoc on the Menominee reservation. Termination had
destroyed the tribe, leaving the Menominee people exposed and vulnerable to the state’s political and economic systems. They were losing everything they had.
Deer attended a meeting on the reservation.
“It just struck me in the heart that they were selling the land, selling our land,” Deer emphasized. “They had abolished the tribal government. The whole 235,000
acres of land was subject to state taxation. They closed down our hospital that the tribe was paying for. They fired 150 men from our lumber mill, impacting 150
families. And the reason was the white superintendent who they put in there stated that the mill wasn’t making money. That was never the intent of the mill. This is
the fundamental difference between tribal values and the values of the dominant society. And so, 150 families suddenly had no means of money. That’s why they
went to Milwaukee and Chicago. I went up to one of the demonstrations. They wouldn’t let us on the grounds. A small group of Menominee was meeting before I got
involved and they didn’t know what to do. When they told me they were selling the land because then they would be able to pay the taxes and do some of these other
things, that was not the way to go.”
Deer decided to get involved and left law school.
In talking about the Menominee restoration effort, Deer always emphasizes that it was a grassroots tribal effort made up of tribal members from cities like Chicago
and Milwaukee and the reservation. Deer became a leader in the effort — and the focal point of the majority community — because of her past national experiences
in community organizing and working for the BIA and the federal government. After attending two meetings, Deer decided to seek legal help.
“I was talking with Joseph Preloznik, the lawyer with the Wisconsin Judicare Program,” Deer said. “He was one of those lawyers who sort of had jobs in the big
corporate and legal world, but he decided to work with low-income people. He was the lawyer for the underdog. He said, ‘Other Menominees had come and talked
with me, but they never came back.’ I said, ‘When I decide to do something, I stick with it.’ He said that he needed more than one client. I told him I could promise
him two more. He looked at me and said, ‘Who are they?’ I said, ‘My brother and my sister.’ I knew they would agree. He and I were kind of noodling around. And I
said, ‘There is no other way that you can think of to reverse this? You said it’s a federal law.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘That’s what we are going to have to do. We’
re going to have to get the law changed.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He was very honest with me. I told him that we had people who were meeting in Chicago and Milwaukee
By Jonathan Gramling
(Part 3 of 5)
Ada Deer is a human rights champion and a significant figure in modern American Indian history. Deer
has been impactful for five decades as the leader of the Menominee restoration movement in the
1970s, professor in the UW-Madison School of Social Work and chair of the UW-Madison American
Indian Studies Program, candidate for Congress in 1992, first woman to lead the U.S. Department of
Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, prison reform advocate and now co-author of “Making a Difference:
My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice.” Deer has lived a full and rewarding life that anyone who
knows her would say that she has lived it her way.
After working for the BIA for 2-3 years, Deer realized that being a career federal employee was not her
“I was getting a little restless because when I came back from the tour, Mr. Nash wasn’t the
commissioner anymore,” Deer said. “The area director also left, so there I was with all of these
different people, but they were just regular bureaucrats. I told a few people that I was going to leave. I
reminded people about things through little memos. But nothing ever got done. In my memos, I wasn’t
asking for revolution. I told them I was resigning. They were looking at me like I was wacko. They said,
and we had some meetings on the reservation in people’s houses.”
Deer set about helping the group develop its identity and public persona.
“At a meeting, I could feel that we were starting to get together,” Deer said. “I
said, ‘We need to have a name for our group. Does anyone have any ideas? It
should have the word Menominee in it. It should have the word action. You
should look at it and automatically think action.’ My sister Connie came up with
this word DRUMS, Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders.
Everyone went, ‘Wow!’ When we got the name DRUMS, that was something we
could all gather around because drums were an Indian thing. Everyone knew
what drums were and it had the word Menominee in it. It had the action item in it,
the determination of rights.”
Next issue: Restoration and the run for Congress