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Ada Deer, first woman to lead Bureau of Indian Affairs, dies at 88

Courtesy Bureau of Indian Affairs

An esteemed Native American leader who was the first woman to head-up the Bureau of Indian Affairs has died. Ada Deer died Tuesday evening of natural causes at age 88.

She was born on the Menominee reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin. In the early 1970s, Deer organized grassroots political movements that fought against policies to roll back the rights of First Nations people. The Menominee Tribe was placed under the control of a corporation in 1961, but Deer's efforts led President Richard Nixon in 1973 to restore the tribe's rights and repeal termination policies.

Courtesy University of Wisconsin Madison

Soon after, she was elected head of the Menominee Restoration Committee and began working as a lecturer in American Indian studies and social work at the University of Wisconsin. She unsuccessfully ran twice for Wisconsin's secretary of state and in 1992 narrowly lost a bid to become the first Native American woman elected to U.S. Congress.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she served for four years and helped strengthen federal protections and rights for hundreds of tribes.

Deer was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame in 2019 and her birthday this year was declared Ada Deer Day by the governor of Wisconsin. She was the first member of the Menominee Tribe to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and became the first Native American to obtain a master's in social work from Columbia University.

Deer's family told the Associated Press she was kind, generous, and had a calming presence.