UW-Madison Honors Ada Deer, Co-author of “Making a
Human Rights Champion
|Ada Deer at the discussion of her Book “Making a
Difference” in UW Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall on
res. But we were severely challenging them. They also didn’t give us any information about what they were deciding. They wouldn’t even allow us to have a meeting
on the reservation. They had instructed everyone — the churches, the schools — to not let us have In order to prevent the land sales."
Deer and Georgianna Webster got elected to the First Wisconsin Trust Company as trustees, who in turn appointed members them to the Menominee Enterprise, Inc.
The DRUMS representatives were elected through a grassroots initiative to gather proxy votes from tribal members. That included reaching out to the Menominee in
Milwaukee led by Lloyd Powless and Chicago, led by Jim White. It also entailed going into Wisconsin prisons and all corners of what used to be the reservation.
“There are four communities on the reservation: Neopit, Zoar, Keshena and South Branch,” Deer said. “I remember going to one of the traditional people in Zoar. He
was very open and let me in. Sometimes they wouldn’t let me in because they didn’t know me even though I told them what we were going to do. We had a number
of people who got the proxies. And this guy said, ‘Ada, I don’t understand all of this. One day, I’m an Indian and the next day, I’m not. But it’s just me.’ I told him that
was what we wanted to get back to. We wanted him and everyone being themselves with their rights restored and the land protected. Then he was ready to sign
because I explained it to him in simple terms.”
Once Deer and Webster got onto the Trust, they stopped the land sales by proposing that the Menominee lease the land to the DNR to build some offices and retain
the ownership. The Menominee land would remain intact. Menominee land would remain intact.
And so now the fight shifted to restoration. The Native American Rights Fund sent two lawyers to work with the Menominee and their lawyer Joe Preloznik to craft
legislation to restore their tribal rights. Senator Ted Kennedy got wind of the effort and wanted to meet with DRUMS in Milwaukee.
“NARF sent us two lawyers,” Deer said. “We were drafting the Restoration Act. And because I am a social worker, people got together and I told them we were going
to draft the act. A couple of people in Milwaukee said Ted Kennedy was interested in this. He was going to be in Milwaukee and he agreed to meet with us. That
started a whole new chapter. We knew that we needed to get a federal law, but we hadn’t gotten there yet. That jump started us. We had a really good meeting there
with him. I ended up talking the most because I really understood the termination. Many of our people were not fully informed. I summarized what it was and we
needed to have support from Washington, from the government. I knew the BIA would have their hand in their too and I had no idea what that would be. He said,
‘When you come to Washington, come to my office.’ That was about the third place that I went to.”
Deer was selected to go to Washington, D.C. to be the DRUMS’ “lobbyist” to advocate for the Restoration Act. DRUMS had few resources and Deer received $500 a
month for serving on the Trust. The National Congress of American Indians gave Deer a small, free office space to operate out of. Deer also had many contacts in the
Washington area because of her service on committees through the years. She ended up staying with different people throughout the effort to get the bill passed.
After staying with a Puerto Rican woman, Inez Castiano, Deer ended up staying with LaDonna Mankiller Harris and her husband, Senator Fred Harris, the Republican
“For about six months, I stayed with Fred and LaDonna Harris at their invitation,” Deer recalled. “They would debrief me from time to time and say, ‘Go see this
person and go and see that person. Tell them that we sent you.’ They were just remarkable. Plus they lived in MacLean where Robert Kennedy’s house was. It was a
nice neighborhood. Every morning, the senator’s driver would show up, so I would be driven into Washington, D.C. with the senator. I thought it was pretty cool.
Fred would ask, ‘What are you doing today?’ I would tell him because people were always referring me to other people. I knew I had to see people on the Indian
Affairs Committee. A couple of the staff people were Indians. And they would really help me.”
One of the first stops that Deer made was at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She met with a lawyer who was not helpful.
“I still remember his name, Scott Keep,” Deer said. “He just recently retired. I said to him, ‘I’m Ada Deer and I’m a Menominee enrolled person and I am here to work
on the Menominee Restoration Act.’ He said, ‘That will never happen.’ That was the wrong thing to tell me. I said, ‘Let me explain what this is.’ I started explaining
and he practically cut me off. I said, ‘We were terminated. Our land is subject to taxation. Our hospital was closed. It’s just a great injustice.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s
just not going to happen.’ I asked him who his supervisor was. I went and saw him. He turned out to be a handsome grandfather looking guy. His name was Charlie.
He said, ‘We can help you.’ Scott Keep worked at BIA for 30 years. I thought about all of the damage that he did to Indian people. I also wanted to meet the
Commissioner of Indian Affairs who turned out to be an Indian person.”
The BIA ended up supporting the Menominee’s efforts. Senator Harris was helpful in other ways.
“Fred and LaDonna had a reception,” Deer said. “Later on, I found out that he put a number of his staff people on it. We had a huge number of people who came. And I
thought, ‘So this is how it goes.’ No, not really. They don’t have mega receptions to introduce a bill. But Fred Harris did it. And he was helpful in walking me through
what I needed to do step by step. You make your own path. But when you are doing something that is so important and so correct in righting a great injustice, people
perked up. I would tell people that Indian people really got the short end of the stick. The word got out to all who were interested in Indians. People had to sign on to
the bill. I wasn’t too involved with that, but Fred Harris would have his staff work on it. They got co-sponsors for the bill.”
Things can change in Washington in an instant as many people try to influence pending legislation, sometimes out of strategy and sometimes out of self interest.
Deer had to watch the progress of the Restoration Act to make sure it wasn’t watered down.
“I had a discussion with the lawyer who the liaison, a Congressional Affairs guy,” Deer said. “I always stopped in and touched base with people because if you’re
not there, who knows what they are going to do. One day, I stopped by and he said, ‘I just came back from a meeting in the Department of Interior.’ I said, ‘Okay, how
was that?’ He said that they were discussing my legislation. I said, ‘You were? What were you talking about?’ He said, ‘They were talking about amending …’ I said,
‘Stop right there. I have a wonderful degree from UW-Madison. I have a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. And you and I both know the
difference between amend and repeal. Amend means you are tinkering around the edges. Repeal is what we want.’ He said, ‘Okay Ada.’ And so the second word in
the Restoration Act is to repeal. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve won that one with him.’”
Members of DRUMS would come out to Washington to assist in the effort when they could afford it.
“On a typical day, we went from office to office to office pounding the halls of Congress,” Deer said. “And I would introduce them to this person, this person and that
person. I didn’t go into their offices just once. I said, ‘This is Senator Nelson’s office. And this is Senator Proxmire’s office.’ And the staff people were doing a really
good job. And the senators were approving it.”
Deer tried to keep the Menominee people informed of what was transpiring in Washington. There is an old saying that if you can’t take Muhammad to the mountain,
take the mountain to Muhammad. Washington came to the Menominee reservation.
“As the lobbyist, I did my best to inform people,” Deer said. “I flew back a few times even though we barely had any money. And the Congressman Lloyd Meeds, who
was on the Appropriations Committee or the Indian Affairs Committee of the House, I asked him as we were going along using my creative approach to stuff — I don’
t go along to get along, I’m always thinking ahead — if we could have a hearing on the restoration on the reservation. I told him that people couldn’t travel and they
didn’t have that kind of money. He thought about it for a couple of seconds. He said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do that.’ He had to get a number of his colleagues to agree.
The two Congressmen came out and we had a long session with them so that people could understand what was going on and hear from the Congressmen. It gave
the Congressmen information about the reservation and they got to see the trees and so on. They were quite impressed even though Mr. Meeds was from the state of
Washington and they have a lot of trees there.”
Eventually, the Restoration Act came up for a vote.
“They have these lights and I was sitting in the gallery,” said as the House voted on the measure. “All of these lights kept going on. There are 435 members. The
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 4 of 5
Ada Deer is a human rights champion and a significant figure in modern American Indian history. Deer
has been impactful for five decades as the leader of the Menominee restoration movement in the
1970s, professor in the UW-Madison School of Social Work and chair of the UW-Madison American
Indian Studies Program, candidate for Congress in 1992, first woman to lead the U.S. Department of
Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, prison reform advocate and now co-author of “Making a Difference:
My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice.” Deer has lived a full and rewarding life that anyone who
knows her would say that she has lived it her way.
Deer left UW Law School to work on getting the Menominee federal recognition restored. The
grassroots movement of the Menominee people to restore their recognition was called DRUMS,
Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stakeholders. It’s hard to believe now, but back in the
early 1970s, they were considered a radical group.
“We were the troublemakers,” Deer recalled. “We were the agitators. They did all the things they could
do to keep s off the reservation, never mind that we were enrolled members and had dwellings on the
|lights kept blinking and blinking and blinking. I
was wondering how they