By Amy Rabideau Silvers
I am a Menominee Indian. That is who I was born and how I have lived. I am tall like the trees that blanket my reservation in northern Wisconsin, and my skin is brown like their bark. Although I have not lived there in years, my roots grow deep in that rocky soil. That soil has anchored me during tumultuous times. I have roots elsewhere—geographically, ancestrally, and intellectually—and they too produced and nurtured the person I have become. But my taproot is Menominee.
Ada Deer began her memoir — Making a Difference/My Fight for Native Rights — with those words. Now 87 and living in the Madison area, she is most proud of helping to restore tribal status and rights for her people, and helping other tribes.
As a girl and young woman, Deer saw her mother, Constance “Connie” Wood Deer, fight congressional efforts to terminate the Menominee tribe and end its historic relationship with the federal government. The Menominee, poor but with rich timber resources, were considered a prime candidate for the new policy called termination.
“Termination sought to end federal supervision, dissolve reservations, and assimilate individual Indians into the American mainstream,” Ada Deer wrote. “Termination involved abolishing tribal governments, allotting tribal land to individuals, removing the protections of trust status, closing the tribal rolls, and divesting of tribal resources.”
Despite a flawed vote and later challenges, the Menominee Termination Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954. Termination was set for 1958, with the date later delayed until 1961, when it became a reality.
Deer remembers the shock of realizing that, legally, she and her people were no longer members of a federally recognized tribe.
“One day we were Indian, and one day we were not,” Deer said, speaking in an interview with the Wisconsin Justice Initiative. “People did not understand what termination was. It was a cultural, economic and political disaster.”
“We thought of ourselves as an Indian tribe and as Menominee people, but Congress had taken away our status as Indians without informed consent,” she wrote in her memoir. “Termination left Menominees wondering who they were. It was a period of confusion, despair, and frustration.”
In anticipation of termination, the state created Menominee County from the former Menominee Reservation land.
After termination, complicated legal arrangements meant families that had long lived on reservation land — land held in common by the tribe — had to buy their homes and pay taxes. Many lost their homes. Many jobs at the tribe’s lumber mill were cut, with new supervision geared toward profit-making, not sustaining the forest and its people. That forced families to leave what had been Menominee land. Against the wishes of many tribal members, a legal trust began working with a development company, building homes and selling land to nontribal members.
In some ways, legal termination and its ramifications were not unlike other troubling chapters of Menominee history. In the 19th century, the federal government tried to force the tribe to move farther west. Chief Oshkosh refused, finally signing a treaty in 1854 that guaranteed the tribe’s right to Wisconsin reservation land. Decades later, Menominee leaders rejected the idea of allotment, which called for individual plots of land, instead insisting on the right to hold their land in common.
Other policies born of prejudice brought their own social consequences and suffering. Joe Deer, Ada’s father, was a student at a Catholic boarding school, where children were punished for speaking their native language or using their Indian names.
Ada Deer grew up mostly on the reservation, the oldest of five children born to Joe and Connie Deer. The family lived in a log cabin on the bank of the beautiful Wolf River. They did not have indoor plumbing, electricity or a telephone. Joe worked at the tribal lumber mill, also hunting and fishing for his family.
Her mother, a white woman, was a nurse who came from a well-to-do Philadelphia family with Quaker roots. While never a member of the Menominee tribe, she was an outspoken rabble-rouser who lived most of her life on the reservation. She took her young children to the meetings where the daily life of the tribe and later its fate were debated.
“She was a leader and she was a fighter,” said Deer.
“You were put on this earth for a purpose,” Deer’s mother would tell her. “You are here to help people. You are here to help your people.”
Finding her purpose
To do that, Deer decided she needed all the education she could get. In 1957, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, the first Menominee to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She next went to Columbia University, becoming the first American Indian to earn a master’s in social work.
Deer loved social work but later felt drawn to make a difference on a more macro policy scale, especially for her people and other Indian tribes. She began law school at UW-Madison but soon decided that the problem of termination was more important. She listened and learned at gatherings of Menominee people.
“It struck my heart that we could lose our land, and it all came together what it meant,” she told WJI. “People were suffering. People were dying. There was no medical care.”
In interviews and her memoir, Deer said that around 1970 she reached out to Joseph Preloznik, director of Wisconsin Judicare, previously involved in tribal legal issues. In meetings with Preloznik, she realized that if the situation was created by an act of Congress, a law was needed to “uncreate” the problem.
“We have to change this,” she declared. “What can we do?”
“You have to get a law through Congress,” replied Preloznik.
For Deer, her people’s difficulties suddenly had a path to a different kind of future. Preloznik also joined meetings with Menominee people. Listening sessions included tribal people living in Milwaukee and Chicago, and they led to the creation of a grassroots group called DRUMS, short for Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders, the name proposed by Deer’s sister.
Deer suggested the word restoration for the new concept of reversing termination.
DRUMS received assistance from the Native American Rights Fund, which assigned attorneys Charles Wilkinson and Yvonne Knight to the case. And when the tribe needed someone to live and lobby in Washington, Deer agreed to represent her people.
Supporters came to include Sens. Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire from Wisconsin, and Sen. Ted Kennedy.
As a lobbyist, Deer took advantage of any opportunity to talk restoration legislation. Once while on an airplane flight, she spotted John Conyers Jr., a Michigan congressman and a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. She strode up to his first-class seat, introducing herself and the subject of tribal restoration.
“I’m working on the repeal of termination,” Deer told him. “This is the Menominee Restoration Act, and it is as important to Menominees and to Indians nationwide as Brown v. Board of Education was to you.”
“Come to my office,” he replied. The Black Caucus joined the bill, which gained near unanimous support in both houses.
A legal victory — and historic first
Almost 20 years after Congress voted for termination, the Menominee tribe was officially reborn. The Menominee Restoration Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 22, 1973.
“The Menominee Restoration Act was the first time that a tribe’s legal status was restored after being terminated,” said NARF attorney Wilkinson, speaking to the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
While many were involved, Deer is considered the driving force behind the success.
“Ada was the leader,” Wilkinson wrote in the foreword to Deer’s memoir. “The adoption of the Menominee Restoration Act announced the end of termination and the beginning of the tribal self-determination era. Without question, the single most important person in this transition was Ada Deer.”
Deer was elected the first woman to chair the tribe, serving from 1974 to 1976, helping her people chart a new course and reestablish relations with federal, state and neighboring governments.
Deer served in other roles during her working life, including as a lecturer with the American Indian Studies program and the School of Social Work at UW-Madison, returning to serve as American Indian Studies director.
Called to service in Washington
In 1993, appointed by President Bill Clinton, she became the first American Indian woman to direct the Bureau of Indian Affairs. On her watch, the federal government established government-to-government relationships with 226 Alaska Native villages and tribes, expanded self-governance to many other tribes, and approved the recognition of four tribes.
She recalled in her memoir how, during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington state, asked her how long these welfare payments to Indians were going to continue.
“Excuse me, Senator,” Deer replied. “These are not welfare payments. As you know, this country was built on Indian land with Indian resources, and treaties lay out the nation’s obligations to Indians, and treaties are the supreme law of the land. These are permanent obligations and will continue.”
“I could hear the air being sucked out of the room,” she wrote. Connie Deer’s daughter was not going to let the welfare myth go unchallenged.
In the case of the Menominee, tribal homeland once encompassed 10 million acres. Twentieth century descendants had fought to restore the tribe’s claim to some 235,000 mostly forested acres.
“Few individuals have had as profound an impact on U.S. Indian policy as Ada has had,” wrote Theda Perdue, the historian and friend who, says Deer, co-authored the memoir.
Running like a Deer
Deer also ran for public office, twice for Wisconsin secretary of state, as well as for Congress against then-State Rep. David Clarenbach (the subject of another WJI Unsung Hero feature and someone she described as “a good guy”) in the 1992 Democratic primary. She beat Clarenbach but lost in the general election.
Her campaign slogan was “Nothing Runs Like a Deer.” When the John Deere company threatened to sue, the campaign said go ahead. Company officials apparently reconsidered how it would all look because no lawsuit materialized.
More recently, she served as a consultant on the American Indian exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum. While no longer as active, Deer remains interested in social issues, including mass incarceration, adequate substance abuse treatment, and protecting the environment. Education and involvement, she said, remain the true paths to social justice and change.
“There are many opportunities to serve,” said Deer. “I want everyone to get a decent education and get involved, depending on their interests. And vote. I think every citizen should vote, and it should be an informed vote. We should appreciate our country and all that it offers.”
This project is supported by grants from
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin