Historian and professor Theda Perdue thought she had read everything written by or about Ada Deer. Then, Deer’s late assistant passed away and, as her lawyer moved her property to Deer’s garage, Perdue discovered about 50 boxes containing papers from Deer's tenure as the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1990s.
The boxes, full of old photos and documents, proved helpful during the hours-long interviews behind Deer’s latest memoir, "Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice." While it was often frustrating to forget biographical details — “83 years was a lot of time to cover,” Deer said — Perdue and her late husband Michael Green’s contributions to the book helped uncover hidden details about her own life, Deer said at a talk at the Memorial Union on Tuesday evening.
“(The BIA) is a chapter in Ada’s life that we know relatively little about,” Perdue said about Deer’s work improving gaming rights for tribes. “This was such an exciting story, because I felt that it was one that hadn’t been told adequately ... Those 50 boxes were an education for me.”
Beyond her government work, Deer and Perdue, her friend and book contributor, discussed the process behind the memoir and decades of commitment to achieving federal tribal recognition in front of an audience of about 400 people. The Wisconsin Alumni Association hosted the talk through the Sandra G. Sponem Alumni Park Signature Program Series Fund.
The talk opened with a reading of the memoir’s first paragraph: “I am a Menominee Indian. That is who I was born and how I have lived,” Deer read. “I have roots elsewhere, geographically, ancestrally and intellectually, and they too produced and nurtured the person I have become. But my tap root is Menominee.”
After becoming the first member of the Menominee to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in social work, Deer committed herself to a lifetime working on Native American advocacy and policy. She was the first Native American woman to run for Congress in Wisconsin and, perhaps most notably, served as assistant secretary of U.S. Department of the Interior as the head of the BIA.
When American Indian Studies professor Larry Nesper, who moderated the conversation, asked Deer what she thinks her legacy may be, Deer replied that “I don’t even think about my legacy.”
“I do what I do and it gives me great joy to have the power I had,” Deer said about her time in Washington. “You’re up there by yourself, because you don’t have the support that you should have, so every day I kept doing what I thought was right.”
Throughout her career, she stayed close to her alma mater. Last year, she was the first participant in the Elders-in-Residence program, which aims to improve the Native American student experience by hosting elders for extended campus visits and mentorship. She has also lectured at the School of Social Work and in the American Indian Studies Program and expressed gratitude that “the university should do more events like this to educate people” about Native American issues.
The university honored Deer’s lifetime of work at a private reception before the talk. The inaugural 4W UNESCO Chair Prize on Gender, Wellbeing and a Culture of Peace will support social justice-based internships and activities, according to a university press release.
“We celebrate alumni who have overcome adversity, have come to the university and gotten a great education to go out and change the world,” said Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association spokesperson Tod Pritchard. “And you cannot paint a better picture of that than Ada Deer.”
Deer is “not done yet.” She touched on issues from voter suppression on reservations, media representation of Native Americans and President Donald Trump's legal battle against federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. And when there’s a new occupant in the White House, Deer said, she hopes to get back to making change.
“I’m gonna get riled up and get those people working out there,” she said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done."