Women Wednesday – Native American Risk-takers

Ada Deer
Ada Deer was born into the Menominee tribe in 1935 in Keshena, Wisconsin. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she attended New York School (now Columbia University) to earn her master’s degree in social work.

Ada then moved to be closer to the Menominee Nation and worked to advocate on its behalf, especially when working with federal authorities. At the time, the Menominee tribe was governed by Menominee Tribal Enterprises, Inc., however, tribe members did not have a controlling vote when decisions were being made. One of these decisions was to sell Menominee lands and remove the tribe’s federal recognition. Ada, opposing this, joined a group called the Determination of Right and Unity for Menominee Shareholders and frequently visited Washington, DC, to gain support for the cause.

Ada’s passion and courage eventually led to the Menominee Restoration Act, which President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1973. This legislation officially restored the Menominee tribe’s federal status and created the Menominee Restoration Committee, on which Ada served as chair for two years. In 1993, Ada was appointed assistant secretary of the interior and served as head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs – the first woman to do so.


Eliza Burton “Lyda” Conley 
Lyda Conley, a multiracial member of the Wyandot Nation, was born in 1869. Her family strongly encouraged her and her sisters to pursue an education, so in 1902, she graduated from Kansas City School of Law, becoming the first woman admitted to the Kansas Bar.

Lyda’s most famous case came soon after, when Huron Cemetery, a tribal burial ground in Kansas, was threatened to be sold for development. In protest, Lyda filed a petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas to stop the sale. She lost, but that didn’t stop her—she bravely appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first female Native American lawyer to be admitted before the court. Unfortunately, she lost again.

Unwavering in her pursuit of justice, when she returned to Kansas, Lyda and her sisters rallied their community to help protect the land, gaining attention from Senator Charles Curtis, who also had Native American ancestry. He introduced a bill to Congress to make the land a national park, and the law was passed in 1916, preventing future development of the cemetery. In 2016, the cemetery was named a National Historic Landmark.

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