BIA student struggles familiar ground for Anderson
Thursday, March 18, 2004

Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson is making his first official visits to some of the schools his agency oversees this week in hopes of spreading a positive message to Native students.

The visits are familiar territory for the new assistant secretary, who founded organization dedicated to helping Native youth develop leadership skills. "I want to impress upon them what I have learned: that positive thinking and health life choices can empower one to build a life based on hope for a better future," he said yesterday after his first meeting.

Yesterday, Anderson went to the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California, an off-reservation boarding school with an enrollment of 643 students. Today, he is headed to the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, another off-reservation boarding school with an enrollment of 318 in grades 9 through 12.

The visits were timed with an education meeting that took place in San Diego but they come as the BIA is under intense scrutiny for the death of a student at Chemawa. Cindy Gilbert Sohappy, 16, died of alcohol poisoning after being placed in a holding cell by school staff. The FBI is investigating and members of Congress are trying to determine whether BIA policies played a role.

According to national studies, alcohol and drug problems are common among the 48,000 students who attend the 185 elementary and high schools that make up the BIA's school system. A 2001 survey found that BIA students drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and use marijuana at rates significantly higher than their public school counterparts.

The situation is a familiar one for Anderson, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe from Wisconsin. When speaking to Native youth, he always reminds them of his own struggle with substance abuse, one that took most of his adult life to beat.

"When I started out, I was a kid too and I thought a little bit wouldn't hurt. For a while, it doesn't," he told a group of youth last month. "It made me feel good for a time. But after a few times, I had to drink more in order to get that same feeling. Then after a while, I could never get that feeling again."

Anderson also shares the difficulties he had in school. "I was in the bottom half that made the top two-thirds possible," he recalls.

Anderson never finished high school but was able to obtain a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. After becoming sober about 10 years ago, he went on to start the Famous Dave's chain of barbecue restaurants.

BIA students don't perform as well on standardized tests as their counterparts. But Anderson tells Native youth they can make a difference if they put their minds to it.

"It doesn't matter where you come from, it doesn't matter what you've been through," he said last month. "The only thing that matters is that you hold onto your dreams."

According to the BIA, Anderson plans to visit more schools in the coming months. He was sworn in to the job early last month.

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Drinking said rampant at BIA boarding school in Ore. (01/22)
Autopsy: BIA student died of alcohol poisoning (1/16)
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