Growing up in Wisconsin as a member of the Menominee tribe, Ada Deer had a love of the world around her.
“I grew up with a love of the land, the river and the trees,” she said.
Upon reaching adulthood, that love pushed Deer to push for her people as the first Native American to run for statewide office and first Native American to win a partisan political primary for federal office.
On Wednesday, she spoke to a crowd of students, faculty and community members as the University’s fourth Elder in Residence as part of a program that brings a nationally known American Indian leader to campus every spring.
Her appearance was part of Native American culture week, which ends Saturday with the 24th annual Carolina Indian Circle Powwow, which will be held in Fetzer Gym from noon to 7:30 p.m.
“The idea is to introduce the campus community to Indian leaders that have changed part of the world,” said Michael Green, professor emeritus of American studies.
April Hammonds, president of Carolina Indian Circle, said she wanted Deer to share her opinions about tribal governance at the event.
“As someone who has been involved with politics for several years, it will be really interesting to hear her opinion of the state that tribal governments are in,” Hammonds said.
Deer was one of the main advocates for the Menominee Restoration Act, which was signed into law in 1973 and gave federal recognition of the Menominee tribe’s sovereignty.
Deer said she followed her mother’s advice when pushing for the act.
“She said: You have a brain, use it. You’re an Indian and you are here to help your people,” Deer said.
In 1969 she returned to Wisconsin and decided that it was time to get involved.
“The more I learned about it, the angrier I got. It was a social and political injustice,” she said.
Deer and her team got their congressman’s support for their bill and took the matter to then-President John F. Kennedy.
“His staff really bedazzled me,” she said.
After Deer and her team introduced and lobbied for the bill, the Menominee Restoration Act passed Congress in less than two years.
“This was the first time this had ever happened in terms of a small tribe starting and getting the U.S. Congress to change their policy,” Deer said.
Prior to the act’s success, Deer said many Native Americans had been conditioned not to think for themselves.
But at UNC, Native American students and groups work to raise awareness about their culture.
Molly Hall-Martin, the Native American program coordinator for the office of diversity and multicultural affairs, said about 200 Native Americans study at UNC.
Native Americans make up about 1 percent of the student body at the University and of the United States population as a whole, Hall-Martin said.
Marcus Collins, assistant dean in the center for student academic counseling and adviser for Carolina Indian Circle, said the group works on campus to create an awareness of issues that face Native American students and Native Americans in the state and the nation.
“It is still a very vibrant culture,” he said.
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