“She embraced the fact that progress can only come when people pour their hearts and souls into making it happen,” Mr. Wikler said.
Ms. Deer ran for office several times, though never successfully. She ran twice for Wisconsin’s secretary of state and once for Congress, in 1992, losing a high-profile race against a Republican incumbent, Scott Klug, that nevertheless brought her yet another distinction: as the first Native American woman to win a Democratic primary for federal office.
Her campaign got her the attention of the incoming Clinton administration, which, despite her outspoken criticism of Washington, named her assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs in 1993, putting her in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
On her first day, she insisted that the big desk and small rectangular table in her office be replaced with a small desk and a large round table, to break down the hierarchy that she felt pervaded the bureau. By the next day, her new furniture was in place.
But she wasn’t; almost immediately she set off to tour reservations, her first being Pine Ridge, in South Dakota, among the country’s poorest. She vowed to reform the bureau from top to bottom and make it work for Native Americans.