PastForward 2019 Preview: Celebrating Women's History - Ada Deer

By Forum Online posted 08-07-2019 11:16


Ada Deer has spent her life advocating for American Indians across the United States. Born in 1935 she was the first Native American woman from Wisconsin to run for Congress, and the first American Indian to graduate with a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. A member of the Menominee Tribe, she was pivotal in the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972 which restored the tribe to federally recognized status. In 1993, she was appointed the first woman Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs, of the Department of Interior. Today, Deer continues to be a tireless advocate and activist for human rights. As we prepare for PastForward 2019 this October we are honored to have Ada Deer as one of our keynote speakers at the TrustLive on Celebrating Women's History which will take place at the magnificent Red Rocks Amphitheater on October 12.  Below is an excerpt of her story in her forthcoming autobiography (out this October from the University of Oklahoma Press) Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice.

Cover of Ada Deer's autobiography
Courtesy University of Oklahoma Press

Ada Deer was not born an activist; she became one. Her mother began this process by telling her that she could make a difference. As a young woman, she seized the opportunity to learn how. The following is an excerpt from her autobiography: 

[In 1956] I went to the Encampment for Citizenship, a six-week program at the Fieldston School in New York City. Founded by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, this program brought together young people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities. The purpose was to engender respect for democratic principles and encourage political activism. We learned by establishing a camp government that required us to put democracy in action, participating in workshops on issues of citizenship and democracy, and interacting with prominent public figures. Two years earlier the Supreme Court had handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that outlawed public school segregation. I knew little about segregation since I had grown up in rural Wisconsin, so I signed up for a workshop on the subject. One of the speakers was Dr. Kenneth Clark, a psychologist who, along with his wife, Dr. Mamie Clark, devised the doll experiment in the 1940s. They had presented black children in segregated schools with a white doll and a black doll and asked them which was smarter, which they would rather play with, and other questions that required them to choose. Most of the children chose the white dolls. Dr. Clark had testified about his research in one of cases that was rolled into Brown, and his findings helped shape the majority opinion. I was enormously impressed. These distinguished African American psychologists had undertaken research that dramatically helped improve the situation of black Americans. “Someday,” I thought, “I can do something of equal significance that will impact Indians.”

Participants in the Encampment spent a whole day at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York, as the guests of Eleanor Roosevelt. The former first lady was an advisor to the board of directors of the New York Society for Ethical Culture and an ardent supporter of the Encampment. She gave a presentation about the United Nations and international cooperation, and then asked for questions. There were a hundred of us there, and no one said a word, so I piped up with a question about South Africa. My workshop on segregation had made me aware of racial injustice beyond the boundaries of the United States. The South African government was oppressing, imprisoning, and killing its nonwhite citizens who sought racial justice. “What can be done?” I asked. “Should the UN throw them out?” She looked at me very kindly and said that expulsion from the UN was not the answer, nor was violence. Change takes time, and education is the way to accomplish change.

Here I am in 2018, eighty-three years old, and I still remember vividly what Eleanor Roosevelt told me in 1956. In her reply I have found motivation and strength that have guided me over the years. Programs like the Encampment motivate young people to do more than they ever imagined was possible and provide them the skills they need. Such programs define achievement not in terms of personal accomplishments but in terms of volunteerism, community service, and political activism. They help participants measure their self-worth by what they have done to bring about positive change in the world rather than what they have accumulated for themselves. The Encampment also brought home to me an awareness that there is strength in numbers and that, by joining together, we can accomplish far more than we could as individuals. Helping an individual out of poverty is good for that person, but addressing the causes of poverty is far more helpful. The Encampment introduced me to a community of people from around the world who were committed to its ideals. Over the years, those connections helped advance the causes for which I have worked.

Ada received her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University. She came to national attention by leading the Menominee Tribe’s struggle against termination. In her autobiography, she recounts the impact of this federal Indian policy: 

In August 1953 Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108, which announced a new Indian policy to “free” specific Indian tribes from federal supervision. The Menominee made the list. . . .  In opposition to the New Deal support of Indian tribes and Native cultures, termination sought to end federal supervision, dissolve reservations, and assimilate individual Indians into the American mainstream. 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.

. . . In less than a decade, [we Menominees saw] . . . our tribe dissolved and our future as a people destroyed. We had been self-supporting and self-governing. Our forest and mill [had] provided employment, and tribal income funded education, health care, and social services. Now desperate poverty was widespread, forcing many young people to seek employment elsewhere. And the very land on which our former prosperity had rested was being sold out from under us. For Menominees, this was the last straw. 

Ada had been working in Minneapolis and Stevens Point, but in 1971 she went home to the Menominee reservation to work for the restoration of the tribe and then to Washington to lobby Congress for passage of the Menominee Restoration Act. She was an unrelenting lobbyist, as she describes in her autobiography:

 I used several tools in my lobbying. One was the book Freedom with Reservation: The Menominee Struggle to Save Their Land and People, by Deborah Shames, a student at UW–Madison. One of her anthropology professors told her that people should not just study about Indians, but should try to help Indians. So she asked, “Where do I go and what do I do?” He sent her to Judicare . . . [which] sent her to me. I told her that we needed a publication that told the Menominees’ story and, with help from . . . others, she produced a very comprehensive, readable account of termination.  . . . [O]ur office in Washington, had the book printed, and . . . [we] sold copies for $2.50 each, with the income going to support our lobbying efforts. I carried copies with me wherever I went.

My second indispensable tool was my briefcase, which was plastered with stickers promoting restoration and filled with copies of Freedom with Reservation. I carried it on my many trips back and forth to Wisconsin and between buildings and offices in D.C. If anyone asked me about it, I’d say, “Oh, you want to know about this? Well, I can tell you. Do you have time?” Next thing I know they’re shelling out money, buying my book, and agreeing to write to their representative or senator. I gave away some too: “Now if you’ll read it, I’ll give this to you.” I got invited to a lot of receptions—Washington loves receptions—and I always took along copies of the book.

I seized every opportunity to educate people about restoration. I was relentless in getting this act through Congress. I think people really appreciated the Menominees’ persistence, and as a result, their admiration and respect for the tribe grew. I was on an airplane once when I recognized Michigan congressman John Conyers, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Black Caucus was on my list of groups to contact. He was up in first class and I was in coach, but that did not stop me! I left my briefcase in coach and went striding up into first class. I don’t remember, but I probably took a copy of the book with me. He was sitting next to a beautiful woman and having a drink. I said, “Excuse me, Congressman Conyers. Could I have two minutes of your time?” What’s he going to do? He’s strapped in an airplane thirty thousand feet in the air. Even so, I did not give him time to respond: “I’m Ada Deer, member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. I’m working on the repeal of termination. 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.” I am not sure whether he took a sip of his drink at that point, but I am sure he wanted to. “Come to my office,” he said. I replied, “Thank you. And who should I see?” He answered, “Just come and see me.” He probably thought it was the quickest way to get rid of me! I did go to his office, and the Black Caucus supported the bill. Most people would have been reluctant to disturb a congressman in first class. Not me.

In 1973 Congress passed the Menominee Restoration Act. In her autobiography, Ada wrote,

We could hardly believe it. A small tribe in Wisconsin had persuaded the United States to reverse its Indian policy.

This is not the end of Ada’s story. She went on to chair the Menominee Restoration Committee, to run for Wisconsin Secretary of State and for Congress, to serve as Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs in the Clinton Administration, and to chair American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She continues to inspire young and old:

As I reflect back over my first eighty-three years, I am appalled that a third of American Indian children still live in poverty. Crime, poverty, and suicide rates on reservations remain disproportionately high, and too many reservation schools are underachieving. Tribal governments should be more responsive to the needs of their people. An adequate BIA budget and more self-governance compacts could help them do that, as could further economic development, gaming initiatives, and litigation of tribal claims and water rights. We as individuals cannot simply take up air and space. We need to work as individuals, communities, and tribes to create a better world. We have resources, and we need to protect them. We have talents, and we need to use them. We have histories, and we need to reflect on them. We have cultures, and we need to embrace them. We are citizens of sovereign tribes, and we need to act like it. Ignorance, racism, and greed continue to threaten Native people, tribes, and resources. We must remain vigilant, prepared to defend our rights and ready to make a difference.

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