Skip to main content

Anderson 'intended nominee' to head BIA

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The Bush administration issued a press release through the Interior Department on Sept. 12, revealing the President's intention to nominate David Anderson as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

Anderson, the 50-year-old entrepreneur who created Famous Dave's barbecue franchise, is an enrolled member of Wisconsin's Lac Courte Oreilles Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe Indians.

The Famous Dave's chain began in 1994 as a barbecue restaurant that Anderson opened in his mother's hometown of Hayward, Wis. Today Famous Dave's has 87 restaurants across the country, grossing $91 million.

Anderson has never held a policy-making position in federal or state government. Press reports describe him as a self-made millionaire, a working-class Chicago kid who started his first business in 1973, at the age of 20. The business went bankrupt. Anderson blames himself for the bankruptcy, citing over-rapid growth and his own failure to seek advice from others.

But within 10 years Anderson had risen to the post of chief executive officer in the Lac Courte Oreilles tribal enterprises. The Interior Department's Sept. 12 announcement said that the tribe's businesses doubled their revenues to $8 million while Anderson was in charge.

His business successes were recognized by President Reagan's 1983 Commission on Indian Reservation Economies, which was co-chaired by Ross Swimmer, the recently appointed head of the BIA's revamped Office of the Special Trustee. Former Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb was also on that commission. The commission's findings were sharply critical of the BIA.

In 1983, Anderson was part of a national task force on reservation gaming.

In 1985, without having completed an undergraduate degree, Anderson enrolled in a public policy program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He received a master's degree the following year.

Anderson was one of the founders, with Lyle Berman, in October 1990 of Grand Casinos, Inc., based in Minnetonka, Minn. Grand Casinos developed and managed several Indian gaming facilities, starting with the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe casinos. In 1998, the former chief executive of the Mille Lacs band, Marge Anderson, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee how Grand Casinos changed the tribe's enterprise from a bingo hall that couldn't get a bank loan, to a gaming empire:

"When two prominent and well-respected Minnesota businessmen began to look carefully at our reservation, and explore with us the possibilities of developing a full-fledged casino as our business partners, we were understandably interested," Chairman Anderson said. "The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe was not prepared to manage a Las-Vegas-style casino, and we were well aware of that fact. Grand Casinos, Inc, however, was prepared to harness the expertise of the most knowledgeable gaming management professionals in the world, and put them to work on our reservation to make our casinos successful. Today, it is no great accident the Band's two properties - Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley - are among the 12 most profitable gaming properties in the United States, and Grand Casinos, Inc., is the fourth largest gaming management company in the world."

Anderson left Grand Casinos, Inc., in March 1996, a month before it opened the Stratosphere gambling resort in Las Vegas, which went bankrupt in less than a year.

Grand Casinos suffered a financial downturn over the next two years. It was bought by the Hilton chain's Park Place Entertainment and transformed into Lakes Entertainment, Inc., at the end of 1998. Lakes Entertainment has bounced back and, coincidentally, is the financial backer of the Massachusetts Hassanamisco Nipmuc band in its attempt to gain federal recognition. The band, one of two factions competing for recognition, expects to receive a final determination of federal status from the BIA before the end of this month.

In 1994, the same year that Anderson opened his barbecue place, Grand Casinos provided the investment capital for Steven Schussler's Rainforest Caf?, a successful "theme" restaurant chain found in many shopping malls. Schussler told the Orlando Business Journal in 1996 that seven years earlier he had converted his Minneapolis home into a prototype Rainforest Caf?, but after more than 100 visits from potential investors, only Lyle Berman, chairman of Grand Casinos, Inc., committed to the project.

Anderson has a motivational philosophy and a special interest in returning some of his gains to the community. He contributed $1.4 million to start a Native American youth leadership program five years ago. The Oprah Winfrey show recognized this program last year as part of its Oprah's Angels Network.

Anderson was in Washington last March at the inaugural meeting of the Interior Department's American Indian Education Foundation. He is one of nine founding board members in a group of business leaders whose mission is to encourage private contributions to BIA schools.

If confirmed by the Senate, Anderson would be overseeing a federal agency that has gained notoriety for mismanaging billions of dollars of trust income from the leasing of land resources owned by individual Indians and tribes. It is an agency that, since the astronomical success of Indian gaming, is the ongoing subject of legislation to change, or remove from its domain, the process by which Indian tribes receive federal recognition - equated by many as a license to open casinos. For both the management of Indian trust monies and the methods used to bestow federal acknowledgment to tribes, the BIA's bureaucracy is seen by many as the problem.

Are Anderson's talents - successful creator of rapid-growth startup companies, experienced manager of a multi-million dollar gaming corporation, motivational leader passionate about insuring excellence in a product and its producers - the tonic for the Bureau's ailing system?

At any rate, the BIA is undergoing sweeping changes during the Bush Administration. Anderson is sure to accelerate some of those. In past interviews, he has emphasized that entrepreneurs seeking business opportunity should not look to the government or their tribes, but to themselves for a positive attitude, hard work and a savings habit.

Aurene Martin, acting Assistant Secretary at the BIA since January, when McCaleb retired, noted that Anderson has not been nominated yet, but she added that the agency looks forward to his tenure. "We can use the help," she said.

For more on Dave Anderson, check out Vol. 23, Iss. 4.

Jerry Reynolds also contributed to this report.