MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Ada Deer, an esteemed Native American leader from Wisconsin and the first woman to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has died at age 88.
Deer passed away Tuesday evening from natural causes, her godson Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, confirmed on Wednesday. She had entered hospice care four days earlier.
Born August 7, 1935, on a Menominee reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin, Deer is remembered as a trailblazer and fierce advocate for tribal sovereignty. She played a key role in reversing Termination Era policies of the 1950s that took away the Menominee people’s federal tribal recognition.
“Ada was one of those extraordinary people who would see something that needed to change in the world and then make it her job and everyone else’s job to see to it that it got changed,” Wikler said. “She took America from the Termination Era to an unprecedented level of tribal sovereignty.”
Deer was the first member of the Menominee Tribe to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to become the first Native American to obtain a master’s in social work from Columbia University, according to both schools’ websites.
In the early 1970s, Deer organized grassroots political movements that fought against policies that had rolled back Native American rights. The Menominee Tribe had been placed under the control of a corporation in 1961, but Deer’s efforts led President Richard Nixon in 1973 to restore the tribe’s rights and repeal termination policies.
Soon after, she was elected head of the Menominee Restoration Committee and began working as a lecturer in American Indian studies and social work at the University of Wisconsin. She unsuccessfully ran twice for Wisconsin’s secretary of state and in 1992 narrowly lost a bid to become the first Native American woman elected to U.S. Congress.
President Bill Clinton appointed Deer in 1993 as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she served for four years and helped strengthen federal protections and rights for hundreds of tribes.
She remained active in academia and Democratic politics in the years before her death and was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame in 2019.
Earlier this month, Gov. Tony Evers proclaimed August 7, Deer’s 88th birthday, as Ada Deer Day in Wisconsin.
“Ada was one-of-a-kind,” Evers posted Wednesday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “We will remember her as a trailblazer, a changemaker, and a champion for Indigenous communities.”
Plans for Deer’s funeral had not been announced as of Wednesday morning. Members of her family did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press.