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Anderson returns to NCAI amid criticism over recusal

Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson acknowledged on Monday the difficulties he has faced in his first few months in public office but vowed to press on despite criticism over his actions.

With one of the world's biggest casinos in the background, Anderson spoke at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) being held on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut this week. It was his first appearance before the largest inter-tribal organization since coming under fire for his decision to recuse himself from federal recognition, gaming and gaming-related matters.

Anderson reminded tribal leaders that he has been at the forefront of the Indian gaming industry for more than a decade. "I was one of the ones who helped negotiate the compacts in Wisconsin and also was instrumental right in the early days of gaming," he told attendees.

But despite his successes, which included forming a company that managed casinos for tribes, he said he removed himself from the controversial area because "I've never wanted my background to be a hindrance to any tribe that has this opportunity."

"You know, it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and say maybe you should have done things differently but that was my decision," he said.

Anderson ran through a list of issues facing the BIA that he said are equally -- if not more -- important than gaming. The Cobell lawsuit, trust reform, reorganization, substance abuse and gang violence are a few, he said.

But the explanation didn't satisfy everyone who listened to the 40-minute speech. For another half-hour, he endured complaints about the recusal decision, the federal budget and whether or not he is doing enough to advocate for tribal needs.

Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, said Anderson was wrong to take himself off gaming issues. "You recused yourself from a certain number of responsibilities that those of us feel are the primary responsibilities of your job," he said.

"I can understand where, if you had a contract with a certain tribe, that you'd recuse yourself from those businesses related to that particular tribe or industry," he added, "but not from the entire responsibilities."

Thomas also suggested that Anderson hasn't pushed for a better BIA budget. The agency faces a nearly 3 percent cut in funds in 2006 and was being cut in 2005 until lawmakers stepped in to restore money to Indian education, hospitals and clinics and other reservation-level programs.

"We know how it works," Thomas said of the budget process. "We just need to have your help to recommend to the [Interior] secretary various amounts and tell us why it's not working."

"You have my support," Anderson responded. "We are working on it." Anderson said he couldn't comment more due to an "embargo" on the budget plans for next year.

Steve Cadue, chairman of the Kickapoo Tribe, thanked Anderson for coming to Kansas to discuss the drought conditions on the reservation. But he said Anderson has delayed an important decision on condemning land for a water project despite promising to make it months ago.

"The Kickapoo Tribe hauled water all summer by tanker truck, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Cadue said. "That's how we survived all last summer, probably the only community in all of the United States -- not just Indian, but any community -- that had to haul water to survive."

Mark Franco, a headman of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of California, pressed for help on the very issue for which Anderson recused himself. He said his tribe was inadvertently taken off the list of federally recognized tribes in 1978.

The omission has prevented tribal members from receiving education, health and other benefits, and is contributing to the destruction of sacred sites in northern California, he said. "We're in a very desperate situation right now," he said.

Anderson expressed frustration with the slow-moving bureaucracy at the Interior Department. He said he is trying to reduce the "red tape" that he and tribes encounter when dealing with the BIA.

But he said he would continue to advance his agenda of improving the lives and education of Indian children and Indian families. Among other ideas, he wants to create a leadership academy at a BIA school and strengthen commerce among tribal nations. He said he would start a national clearinghouse for Indian business-to-business exchanges.

"I don't know if I have all the answers but I know as Indian people that we can come together, that we can work together, that we can come up with positive ideas to make things happen," he told NCAI.

Critics of the BIA have called on Anderson to resign due to his recusal. But Indian leaders and tribal advocates have defended him from the attacks, which are seen as a way to stop the growth of the $16 billion Indian gaming industry.