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White House acts to fill top BIA leadership post
Monday, September 15, 2003

The Bush administration on Friday announced its intention to nominate David Anderson, an Ojibwe businessman, as head of the Bureau of Indian Afairs, nearly a year after his predecessor said he was leaving office due to a contentious and litigious environment.

In making the announcement, officials played up Anderson's business -- rather than political -- background. A member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin, Anderson is more commonly known as "Famous Dave," after the publicly-traded chain of barbecue restaurants he founded. The company reported revenues of $90.8 million last year.

The administration also said Anderson has a long history with Indian issues, noting $6 million in donations he has made to Indian causes. He was recently recognized by Oprah Winfrey's "Angel Network" for his efforts to help Native children, including the $1.4 million YouthSkills Foundation he created in 1999.

But to some in Indian Country, Anderson and his achievements draw a blank. Even though his name was mentioned numerous times in recent months as the possible assistant secretary nominee, tribal leaders were hard-pressed to understand why he was even being considered.

"There are some very qualified people out there," said John Gonzales, Governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico. "I have no idea where people like [former assistant secretary] Neal McCaleb came from or [acting BIA head] Aurene Martin or, now, David Anderson. I've been involved in Indian Country affairs for some time now and sometimes I wonder where where they find certain people to serve in these positions."

Regardless of the choice, the fact that it took so long for the White House to make its move bothered tribal leaders. To leave the BIA without a leader while the agency undergoes a top-to-bottom reorganization in an attempt to fix the broken Indian trust was troublesome, they said.

Trust reform was the reason Neal McCaleb, a former Oklahoma state Cabinet official, announced his resignation last November and left a month later. He was under pressure from a federal judge who labeled him and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton "unfit" to manage the money belonging to hundreds of thousands of American Indians. The case alleges that up to $176 billion in funds and interest remains unaccounted since 1887.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest inter-tribal organization, said trust will be one of the biggest challenge facing Anderson. "The weakness is that he doesn't have the experience of trust, of administering trust management and adhering to the trust responsibility," he said.

But the other major issue, Hall added, is improving economic conditions for more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. "The real question is the character and the commitment and the other experiences that he would provide," Hall said. "Obviously, he's a self-made individual so economic development would be important. I would really like to ask him what his plans are [in this area]. I think Indian Country has been clamoring for economic development."

In a statement, Anderson said he was "deeply honored at the prospect of being nominated as Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Indian Affairs. I welcome the opportunity to work closely with the American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

Anderson's "innovative leadership and dedication to constant improvement," will be an asset to the BIA, said Norton in a statement. "His inspiring vision, proven management expertise and compassion for Indian issues will help us in our efforts to improve the quality of services we provide to Indian Country."

Aurene Martin has been serving as acting assistant secretary, hand-picked by Norton. She was angling for the permanent nomination, Republican sources said, but was not among the final candidates for the job.

Anderson's name still has to be submitted to the Senate for approval. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee would have to hold a confirmation hearing. Typically, a BIA nominee, regardless of party affiliation, receives unanimous support from the panel.

Anderson is currently serving as chairman of the board of directors of Famous Dave's of America. In a statement, CEO David Goronkin said Anderson would step down from his capacities with the company if confirmed.

Relevant Documents:
DOI Press Release: Secretary Norton Praises President's Intention to Nominate David Anderson as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs (September 12, 2003) | Famous Dave's Statement (September 12, 2003) | White House News: Personnel Announcement (September 12, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Famous Daves -
LifeSkills Center for Leadership -
National Congress of American Indians -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Related Stories:
Lack of BIA nominee puzzles Indian Country (08/07)
BIA's Martin breaks unofficial boycott of NCAI (06/17)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Bunker mentality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
White House asked to bring DOI to the table (02/25)
McCaleb latest in long line of DOI departures (11/25)
McCaleb changed, yes, but little else did (11/22)
McCaleb resigning from BIA (11/22)
How to Mismanage Indian Trust Assets Without Really Trying (08/07)
Feathers ruffled in and out of Indian Country (07/31)
Key trust reform player leaving BIA (02/28)

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