Forging Firsts: The Remarkable Life of Ada Deer

Ada Deer Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Ada Deer Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo © Andy Manis)

An educator, civil servant, and proud member of the Menominee Nation, Ada Deer ’57 was a political activist and trailblazer who laid the groundwork for the successes of many American women. Ada was the first Menominee Tribe member to graduate from UW–Madison, and she served as a tireless advocate for Native rights and a just society.

Ada Deer passed away on Aug. 15, 2023, and UW–Madison campus and alumni leaders are recognizing her vast impact on and off campus.

“Ada Deer showed us all how to shake things up and go after what we want and deserve,” said Carla Vigue, director of tribal relations at UW–Madison. “She blazed a long and wide trail for Native women, and her support, words of encouragement and enthusiasm empowered us. Her belief in us propelled us forward.

“She wanted us to lead and do what is best for our community,” Vigue added. “Ada’s legacy will live on through those she lifted up.”

On August 7, 1935, Ada Deer ‘57 was born on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin. For the first 18 years of her life, Ada and her family of seven lived in a modest log cabin near the Wolf River. Raised by a mother with strong affinity for Native advocacy, Ada, the eldest of her siblings, excelled in school and fervently followed in her mother’s footsteps. She moved off the reservation to attend college and so began her legacy of a lifetime of firsts.

Ada decided early on that marriage and children were not among her priorities. Instead, she sustained a lifelong love of learning. She received a tribal scholarship and was the first Menominee member to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Read More About Ada