By Jessica Steinhoff | Photo by Althea Dotzour, University Communications
Carla Vigue attended a very memorable birthday party last summer. It was for 88-year-old Ada Deer, who led the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997. (Deer has since passed, in August 2023.)
“It’s your turn to lead,” said the Menominee scholar and activist, grabbing Vigue’s hand and looking her in the eye. Vigue does just that as UW-Madison’s director of tribal relations, a role she assumed in January 2023. She has been leading for years — at the National Council of Urban Indian Health, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs and more — but a Native elder had passed her the baton. She was floored.
“I’m inspired by my elders and hope to make them proud,” she says.
An enrolled member of the Oneida Nation, Vigue grew up on the reservation near Green Bay. She describes it as tight-knit community where everyone looks out for each other.
“I would not be who I am today without the support of so many people there,” she says.
Oneida friends and family encouraged Vigue’s educational pursuits, and tribal leaders helped her secure her first job after graduate school, at a government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Plus, they showed her how to organize cultural events that educate people of other backgrounds.
“The traditional longhouse singers came to Illinois Wesleyan, where I went to college, and put on a social dance,” she recalls. “It wasn’t just to make me feel at home, it was to teach others what it means to be Oneida.”
Telling Native people’s stories is one of Vigue’s specialties, whether she’s forging partnerships between institutions or promoting policies that benefit Wisconsin tribes. As communications director for Gov. Jim Doyle, she gained a reputation as a savvy spokesperson and bridge- builder. These qualities serve her well at UW–Madison, where her top priorities include creating support systems for Native students and strengthening the university’s relationships with Wisconsin tribes.
Learning from other Native people is a big part of Vigue’s current role. She and Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin have been consulting tribal leaders while developing ways to improve university access for Native students.
Vigue has also been integral to art initiatives that help Native people feel welcome on campus. These include unveiling Observatory Drive’s new Ho-Chunk Clan Circle, a sculpture series by Ken Lewis, and dedicating “Effigy: Bird Form,” a sculpture by Truman Lowe, the late Ho-Chunk artist, UW art professor and curator for the National Museum of the American Indian. “Effigy” debuted at the White House in 1997 and moved to the UW’s Observatory Hill in 2023.
“We have an opportunity to make UW-Madison a place that lives up to my elders’ expectations and lifts up generations to come,” Vigue says.