Last year, history was made with the election of the first Native American women to Congress. Decades before, Ada Deer was busy paving the way for others to succeed.
In 1957, she became the first member of the Menominee to graduate from UW-Madison, receiving her bachelor’s in social work. In 1993, she became the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and helped set policy for more than 550 federally recognized tribes.
“I was born a Menominee Indian. That is who I was born and how I have lived,” she writes in “Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice.”
Deer will discuss her life and new memoir Nov. 19 at Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall, 800 Langdon St. A reception begins at 6 p.m. with programming from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Joining Deer at the public talk will be book contributor Theda Perdue, professor emerita at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The conversation will be moderated by Professor and Director of American Indian Studies Larry Nesper. Deer was a lecturer at UW-Madison’s American Indian Studies program and the School of Social Work from 1977 until 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed her to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Deer will receive theinaugural 4W UNESCO Chair Prize on Gender, Well-being and a Culture of Peace before the lecture. UW-Madison was awarded the UNESCO Chair in 2016, one of only 20 in the United States. The 4W UNESCO Chair Prize hhonors innovative work and provides resources to extend that work.
Deer’s book recounts her life, from growing up in poverty on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin and earning degrees in social work, to running for Congress and serving as the assistant secretary of Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Today, Deer remains deeply committed to human rights and social justice.
Both Deer and Perdue will be available for book signings during a reception following the discussion, and the book will be available for purchase at this event. A portion of the proceeds from book sales will go toward the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program in Deer’s name.
Prior to the public talk, Deer will be honored for her lifetime of commitment to social justice at a private reception with the the inaugural 4W UNESCO Chair Prize on Gender, Wellbeing and a Culture of Peace. The leadership and financial award will support student internships and activities focused on social justice in our community.
Deer credits her mother for her confidence and conviction.
“My mother was a fierce crusader for Indian rights,” she said during her confirmation hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs. “Many a tribal leader and lawyer would grow more than a little apprehensive upon her approach. Many would think,
‘Here comes Connie Deer and it looks like she has something on her mind.’ I am told that there are people who have said the same thing about her oldest daughter.”
Deer was the inaugural participant last year of the Culture Keepers/Elders-in-Residence Program, a new UW-Madison initiative to improve the experience of American Indian and Alaskan Native students by hosting Native elders on campus for extended visits and educational exchanges.
Earlier this month, she was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame.
“I speak up. I speak out,” Deer said in an interview last year recognizing the 150th anniversary of women getting undergraduate degrees at UW-Madison. “It’s not like I plotted and planned. I just had this general goal. I want to do and I want to be and I want to help. And I’ve been able to do it.
“People think you’re born this way but you create your way as you go along. No. Your life evolves. You create your own way as you go along. You can, and I did.”
To attend this free event, register by Nov. 18 at https://www.uwalumni.com/event/uw-madison-presents-ada-deer-making-a-difference/.
The original version of this story appeared on wisc.edu.
By Käri Knutson/ November 12, 2019