News & Events


September 15, 2015

Ada Deer Visits the UW

As a Menominee doctoral student at the University of Washington School of Social Work, I was thrilled that one of my ultimate tribal heroines and social work mentors was invited to speak at several campus events in late March and early April this year. Ada Deer was invited as one of IWRI’s Elders in Residence. Ms. Deer is a social worker, community organizer, political activist, leader, and educator. She has spent her life making a difference for her Menominee people as well as for all American Indians, Alaska Natives and Indigenous people. She was the first American Indian woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin (Madison); the first American Indian to graduate from the Columbia University School of Social Work; the first woman Chair of the Menominee Tribe; the first American Indian woman to run for statewide office; and the first American Indian to win a partisan political primary for a federal office.
AdaDeerCroppedAside from all of these most honorable achievements, I first remember learning about her as a child in our tribal school system. I recall one of my social studies teachers talking about how, as Menominees, “we fought” to regain sovereignty over our government and our original homelands. As I grew older, I developed a deeper understanding of our history as Menominee people, and what my social studies teacher meant when she said that “we fought.” As one of the first tribes to be terminated under federal assimilation policies in 1954, termination led our tribe to further poverty and political disempowerment. Ms. Deer was among one of the tribal activists who fought hard for our restoration as a sovereign nation, which was returned to us in 1973. As I grew older I realized what a huge impact tribal sovereignty made on my family and community’s ability to carry on our ancestors’ traditions, and exercise our rights to act as a sovereign, autonomous nation in all areas of life.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be invited to assist with hosting Ms. Deer and her friend and traveling companion Pearl Jackson, who also has had an admirable social work career in Minneapolis and contributed a great deal of wisdom to each of the conversations and presentations where Ms. Deer spoke. Though I was not able to attend all of the student, faculty and staff luncheons and conversations with Ms. Deer, I enjoyed a number of visits with Ms. Deer and Ms. Jackson. Picking up Ms. Deer and Ms. Jackson from the airport at their initial arrival, we were able to share a late dinner full of laughs, love life and career advice. At the Preparing our Future Native American Health Leaders Conference, I was able to listen to Ms. Deer’s interactive presentation on the need for Native people in healthcare professions in relation to her work as a social worker and activist. At the IWRI Elder’s Conversation, fellow graduate students and I had the pleasure of engaging in conversation with Ms. Deer about her challenges and triumphs as a Native woman leader fighting for restoration of our Menominee tribal sovereignty and her political career in addition to sharing her wisdom in response to our own questions about career and social justice. Afterward, we wrapped up the visit with a dinner of pizza, final four basketball, more laughter, love and career advice.

Overall, Ms. Deer’s visit reminded me of the journeys our ancestors have taken on in order to fulfill their vision of health, well-being and social and environmental justice for future generations. As a mentee and friend of Ms. Deer, I am charged with the responsibility of ensuring that I too fulfill my responsibility to our Native communities and future generations so that, long after I pass on, Menominees and other Native people will be able to live as their ancestors had envisioned, with the freedom and autonomy to determine their own health, well-being and futures. I am reminded of how truly blessed we are as Native students to have mentors such as Ms. Deer, and how with these opportunities and mentorship we will move forward in a good way so that future generations can continue this work.