First 4W UNESCO Chair Award at UW

On November 19, 2019, Ada Deer received the inaugural 4W UNESCO Chair Prize on Gender, Wellbeing and a Culture of Peace, at a private reception.  Deer was recognized for her lifetime of commitment to social justice.

The leadership and financial award honors innovative work and provides resources to extend that work.  It will support student internships and activities focused on social justice in our community.  UW-Madison was awarded the UNESCO Chair in 2016, one of only 20 in the United States.

The private reception took place just before Deer’s public talk on November 19, which was held at Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall. Deer discussed her life and new memoir, “Making a Difference: My Fight for Native Rights and Social Justice.”

Theda Perdue, professor emerita at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and contributor to Deer’s memoir, joined Deer for the public talk.  Larry Nesper, Professor and Director of American Indian Studies, moderated the conversation.

Ada Deer greets attendees
Photo of Ada Deer by Bryce Richter/UW-Madison.

Deer’s book recounts her life, from growing up in poverty on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin and earning degrees in social work, to running for Congress and serving as the assistant secretary of Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Today, Deer remains deeply committed to human rights and social justice.

“I was born a Menominee Indian. That is who I was born and how I have lived,” she writes in her memoir.

In 1957, she became the first member of the Menominee to graduate from UW-Madison, receiving her bachelor’s in social work. Deer was a lecturer at UW-Madison’s American Indian Studies program and the School of Social Work from 1977 until 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed her to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1993, she became the first woman to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and helped set policy for more than 550 federally recognized tribes.

“I speak up. I speak out,” Deer said in an interview last year recognizing the 150th anniversary of women getting undergraduate degrees at UW-Madison. “It’s not like I plotted and planned. I just had this general goal. I want to do and I want to be and I want to help. And I’ve been able to do it.

Deer was the inaugural participant last year of the Culture Keepers/Elders-in-Residence Program, a new UW-Madison initiative to improve the experience of American Indian and Alaskan Native students by hosting Native elders on campus for extended visits and educational exchanges. Earlier in November 2019, Deer was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame.

“People think you’re born this way but you create your way as you go along. No. Your life evolves. You create your own way as you go along. You can, and I did.”

The original version of this story appeared on

By Käri Knutson/November 12, 2019