Anderson asks for prayers in new job as head of BIA
Thursday, February 5, 2004

HAPPY, HEALTHY, TERRIFIC: Bureau of Indian Affairs chief Dave Anderson leads tribal leaders through motivational cheer at United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) meeting.
Dave Anderson doesn't mind telling people that he used to abuse alcohol and drugs. Or that was once ashamed of being Native American. Or that he thought he would never make it in life.

Normally, these aren't things a person who was just sworn in to head a government agency shares with the public. But for Anderson, better known for his barbeque sauces than his positions on Indian issues, these aren't normal days.

So it sort of made sense when Anderson showed up to a meeting of tribal leaders yesterday and got them all to stand up and recite a cheer. It was a motivational cheer from his days in the restaurant business.

"I feel happy, I feel healthy, I feel terrific!" Anderson yelled, fist pumped in the air.

He knew it was an odd thing to ask of several dozen tribal leaders, tribal members and attendees of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) meeting. He said just as much.

"Some of you are thinking this is out of place and hokey already," he said. "But that's OK. I really want everybody to get of your comfort zones and just share with me in being excited and being enthusiastic. It's OK, right?"

So he did it again. Not once, but twice.


Anderson, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin, didn't always feel that way. A high-school dropout, he spent the early part of his life as a "drinking person," someone who "couldn't get up in front of a group and lead them in silent prayer."

"That's how far behind I was," he said.

But his life changed, he revealed, when "somebody got a hold of me and practically shook me up and said 'Dave, as a Native person, you should be proud.'"

That was about nine years ago. Since then, he's been spending his life a "sober person," someone who started a restaurant near his tribe's reservation in 1994 and built it into a publicly-traded chain of of 87 restaurants in 23 states. Last year, Famous Dave's of America reported $90.8 million in revenues.

He went on to create the LifeSkills Center for Leadership to help at-risk Native youth, a label that could have applied to him 40 years ago. Oprah Winfrey lauded his success on her popular television show and gave the organization a $25,000 grant in 2002.

Those are the good things, the things people want him to talk about. But Anderson thinks he has something else to bring to the table.

"I don't believe that I would be doing my people any service if I just shared the good things," he told USET attendees yesterday. "You need to know that I've had adversity in my life. You need to know that I've been through alcohol and drug abuse treatment."

"Because, by my being able to say that, I believe I can also be a role model to our young people and other people that are looking for change in their lives," he continued. "I really believe, as Native people, we weren't meant to be living our lives half-unconscious."

For Anderson, that means reading two or three books a week, and, yes, even making people stand up and say they feel happy, healthy and terrific.

But just what is he going to do as head of the BIA? He doesn't know exactly just yet. "I don't have all the answers and probably don't have a lot of things I can share with you," he admitted yesterday.

He does have some ideas. Not surprisingly, they center around education and economics. He cited youth drug abuse and youth gangs, even though both aren't exactly duties of the BIA. Reservations in Minnesota, where he currently resides, have been overrun by both.

He said he wants to improve economic opportunities in Indian Country. "When I was chief executive officer of my tribe, my whole job was to try and get other businesses to come to the tribe," he said. "It was a difficult thing to do."

But "one of the things I realized," he added, "is that we just don't need another government program to build us another business, so we could fill that building with inventory and hang our sign out. Really, what we needed was Indian people that were willing to get up in the morning, that out of every cell in their body, came passion and the desire to make that business succeed."

Anderson also had a request. "I'm going to ask that the tribes not beat us up," he said. Just about everybody laughed when he said that.

He knows the BIA has its problems -- trust fund mismanagement, to name one -- because people urged him not to take the job. They told him to stay home and keep running his business. "I thought that there were better people who better understood all these issues," he said.

But Anderson said he believes "we can turn this around."

"I learned a long time ago [that] I cannot do this journey by myself," he said. "I need your prayers."

Relevant Links:
Famous Daves -
LifeSkills Center for Leadership -

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