The Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work Board of Visitors unanimously selected Ada Deer, BSW ’57, as this year’s recipient of the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award at their meeting over homecoming last week in Madison. The award is given annually to an outstanding graduate of the school who has made significant contributions to social work, social policy, and/or the community. Ada Deer is an obvious choice given her many contributions.
Ada Deer was born in Keshena, WI as a member of the Menominee Tribe. Throughout her life she has been a strong advocate for Native American rights. She was the first Menominee to earn an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. In 1961, she was the first Native American to receive an MSW from the Columbia University School of Social Work. Her work on behalf of the Menominee led to the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, which officially returned the Menominee Reservation to federally recognized status. Because of this accomplishment, Deer became the first woman to chair the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin. Her political activism has included running for Wisconsin secretary of state in 1978 and again in 1982. In 1992, she became the first Native American woman in Wisconsin to run for U.S. Congress. In 1993, Deer was appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was the first Native American woman to hold that position. While in office, she helped set federal policy for more than 550 federally recognized tribes.
As an educator and social worker, she taught classes at the UW-Madison School of Social Work and, in 2000, she became director of the American Indian Studies Program. Her book Making a Difference: My Fight for Native American Rights and Social Justice, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press, 2019 and was selected as our school’s community read. Ada has received countless awards and honors for her work.