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Anderson's resignation blamed on lack of support

Famed entrepreneur Dave Anderson announced his resignation as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday in what tribal leaders said was the latest casualty of the Bush administration's failed trust reform effort.

After just a year on the job, Anderson said in a letter that he was stepping down to return to the private sector. It was there that he rose to prominence as the founder of the "Famous Dave's" chain of barbecue restaurants that created thousands of jobs and generated millions of dollars in revenues.

"I have concluded that I can have the greatest impact to improve the future of Indian Country, not by managing the day-to-day operations of BIA programs, but by focusing my time on developing private sector economic opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs," he wrote on January 27 to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

In a response also dated January 27, Norton accepted Anderson's decision with "regret" but praised his intent to improve economic opportunities for American Indians and Alaska Natives. "I have received many reports from people who have been encouraged by your message of hope, self-reliance, and belief in the personal worth and dignity of each Native American," she wrote.

Norton made only a slight mention of the trust reform initiatives at the Interior Department that have generated significant controversy during the past four years. Over the objections of tribal leaders, the Bush administration reorganized the BIA and expanded the Office of Special Trustee in an attempt to fix the long-standing problem, while cutting funds for other Indian programs.

Tribal leaders yesterday said that approach contributed to the resignation of the ninth assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Anderson became frustrated because he was unable to advance his own agenda because trust reform consumed the attention of officials like Norton and her top aides, they argued.

"We all know that the sixth floor of the secretary's office thinks that everything should be on trust -- trust reform, trust reform, the Cobell lawsuit," observed Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "Dave Anderson wanted to develop education, establish leadership academies, he wanted to revamp the entire economic development program at BIA. He wanted to look at entrepreneurship and develop partnerships with other agencies."

"He was totally on a different page," Hall said.

Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, agreed that the trust issue played a large role in Anderson's decision. "I think he was frustrated that he couldn't do what he wanted to do, that the resources that the bureau had were so dedicated towards fixing the trust problem, that they didn't really have the resources to address the economic development and education priorities that he had," Allen said.

The lack of support Anderson received was an ongoing issue since he joined the BIA in February 2004. Due to the departure of his predecessor Neal McCaleb, who resigned in December 2002 based on the trust debacle, he inherited a slew of aides who were not necessarily loyal or supportive of his agenda.

Although nearly every single one of those high-level aides either transferred or resigned, Anderson still faced obstacles from Norton's office over staffing and management issues, tribal leaders said. They said Jim Cason, Interior's associate deputy secretary who has been a key player in the trust reform saga, kept a tight rein on the BIA.

"He wasn't forced [to resign]," said a tribal source close to Anderson. "He was mad about not being able to bring in a team and Cason managing his department."

"Let's put it out in the open," added Hall. "There's a lot of people that say Jim Cason was running the BIA behind the scenes."

Cason will indeed be in charge of the agency until a replacement for Anderson can be named and confirmed by the Senate. Cason was named the acting assistant secretary with Mike Olsen, a former Hill staffer, to remain as the principal assistant secretary. Both are non-Indians.

In a statement, Norton said she will work with the White House and Indian Country to find a new assistant secretary. Tribal leaders yesterday mentioned Tim Martin, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes and a member of the Poarch Creek Band of Indians in Alabama, as a wise choice.

Anderson, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe from Wisconsin, plans to depart on February 12. Before leaving, he will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to establish clubs at BIA schools. The ceremony takes place today in Phoenix, Arizona.

Next week, Anderson will attend RES 2005, the 19th Annual National Reservation Economic Summit and American Indian Business Trade Fair, in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is scheduled to speak on Thursday, February 10.

Relevant Documents:
Dave Anderson Letter | Gale Norton Letter | DOI Statement

Relevant Links:
Famous Daves -
LifeSkills Center for Leadership -