Ely native takes legal reins at US Home Office


David Colburn

ELY- He has worked in the US Department of the Interior since day one of the Biden administration, working remotely until he moved to Washington, DC, about a month ago. Yet recently confirmed attorney Robert “Bob” Anderson is proof that you can take a man from Ely, but you can’t take Ely from the man.
“We’re actually going to Ely for Thanksgiving,” Anderson said in an interview Tuesday with the Timberjay.
Anderson’s work as the top legal expert within and supervisor of 430 attorneys working for the department in Washington, DC and in 16 regional offices across the country is the most recent chapter in a story that began in Ely and along the shores of Burntside Lake. .
“At the end of school, at the end of the year, we moved from our home in Ely and went to our resort, called Echo Trail Lodge, which my Indian grandparents, John Anderson Sr. and Mary Anderson, started in 1936. They worked at Burntside Lodge and had saved up money, and my grandfather had received World War I bonus money provided by Congress. I think it was $ 2,000. They took that and put it as a down payment and borrowed the rest from a lawyer in Chicago who loved my grandparents very much. My grandfather took him fishing all the time and he was kind of a presence around the family. My dad was about 11 at the time, and he had a sister and two other brothers, and the family together ran the resort.
John Anderson Sr. died in 1955, but his wife Mary, Bob’s father John A. Anderson, and the rest of the family continued with Echo Trail Lodge, and summers, as Bob described them, were not certainly not alone by the lake. .
“My dad and uncle Jim have done the lion’s share of the work since I was in the ’60s and’ 70s,” Anderson said. “I had an uncle named Bill Anderson, he had his wife, Caroline, and 11 children, and they all lived on the property in a house on the hill. And I had four older brothers. I had three other cousins ​​on the other side of my aunt’s family. So in total there were 21 grandkids living there and wow, that was a wild scene. We play in the woods, swim, everyone was athletic, we all play sports and I think there were 18 boys and three girls. You know, we just got through life, going to Ely public schools, and spending the summer by the lake and the winter in town. It was a pretty idyllic education.
Speaking with Anderson, it’s clear that family has been at the center of her life, starting with her parents, John and Eleanor. John died in 2006, and Eleanor in 2018. The couple met while they were both students at Ely Junior College and married in 1947.
“I miss them a lot,” Anderson said. “They did a great job with us, uplifted us and put us on the right path. “
“Us” includes Anderson’s brothers, John, Mark, Rick and Dan.
“John was ten years older than me. He was my high school hockey coach, my high school tennis coach, and my eighth grade math teacher. It was his first job, teaching in eighth grade, when he returned to Ely. He taught there all his career.
Mark was the brother who inspired Bob to see law as a profession.
“My brother Mark sadly passed away two years ago,” Anderson said. “It was the lawyer. He was in private practice in St. Paul and was counsel for the band in Bois Forte. He was a tribal lawyer for probably 25 to 30 years and represented many tribes in the upper Midwest. I moved after going to college, and I always joked that I had to move because my brother had taken all the air in the room to represent the tribes.
Brother Rick has lived in Ely his entire life, and he and Bob own cabins next to each other.
“He’s a great hunter and fisherman,” Anderson said. “Last year we went to Nett (Lake) and made rice. He’s still fishing and he’s still making something and working on a project. We spend a lot of time together. “
Dan is the closest brother in age to Bob.
“He worked for the education department of the Fond du Lac tribe for probably 35 years,” he said. “I guess you’d say everyone is doing pretty well. My parents were really happy with it.
It is also clear from his descriptions of family history, past and present, and his career path, that Anderson has a deep and lasting connection to his Aboriginal heritage and his membership in the Bois Forte Band.
“In the 1960s, it wasn’t very popular to be a Native American,” he said. “There were times when the tribes weren’t even recognized by the federal government. It was a strange time to grow up. You can now see that Bois Forte owns the WELY radio station and they are major economic players in the region. And I worked here at DOI with a Native American Home Secretary, Deb Haaland, and the president is planning a big White House conference on tribal nations on November 15th.
Path inward
Anderson followed this inspiration from his brother Mark, a law graduate from the University of Minnesota. His first job after college with the Native American Rights Fund took him away from Minnesota, and Ely has been home from afar.
Much of Anderson’s career has been in academia, leading the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington for 20 years and also teaching fall semesters at Harvard Law School while remaining a member. from Washington faculty.
But Anderson is no stranger to government, either. From 2011 to 2013, Anderson served on a five-person committee that reviewed the federal government’s handling of $ 4 billion in Native American trust funds and suggested reforms to the program. He served as Assistant Home Counsel for Native American Affairs and Advisor to the Home Secretary during the administration of former President Bill Clinton. He also advised Obama’s transition team in 2008 and 2009.
In the fall of 2020, Anderson was once again considering a transition to public service.
“One advantage I had when I came into administration was that I was the co-head of the transition team for the Biden campaign,” he said. “So I had been doing interviews for about a year, at that point we started to prepare for the election in case Biden wins, by educating different groups that have cases in front of the department.”
When he started with administration in January, Anderson served all of Solicitor’s functions as Deputy Principal Solicitor until he was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 29. Anderson described the extent of his duties within the Interior.
“I am the attorney general of the Ministry of the Interior,” he said. “I oversee all the legal affairs of the department, and I am the person who has the right to indicate the legal position of the Ministry of the Interior on all matters falling within our competence. And there is a lot of jurisdiction. Thirty percent of the country’s land is under our control, along with the entire outer continental shelf, where oil and gas drilling takes place. “
Anderson has five political deputies to help oversee the affairs of the department.
“To a certain extent my office operates on its own because I have very capable career managers and excellent career lawyers,” he said.
One of the first agendas under Anderson’s leadership was to initiate a review of legal positions issued under the previous administration.
“At the end of the Trump era, one of the reasons I wanted to come in was to sort of undo some of the damage that we as Democrats thought was done by the Trump administration,” said Anderson. “So we spent a lot of time reviewing our legal position in business and in some cases we changed the government’s position. “
The work is stimulating and rewarding, but it is certainly different from university life.
“I don’t do as much hardcore legal work as I like to do,” Anderson said. “I was a law professor and really enjoyed studying law and writing articles, articles and books. But now I’m more of a generalist, overseeing all these different cases, making decisions on strategy in terms of our legal position, advising Secretary Haaland on complicated issues and making recommendations to her.
Anderson could not comment on the issues involved in the ongoing litigation, such as the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine project, but he shared the approach the department is using to deal with the hot issues.
“What we’re doing on all of these decisions is we’re doing outreach, we’re talking both sides of an issue,” he said. “If we want to change their position and go to court, we talk to the parties to the case. “
“We are careful to talk to people who we know will be opposed to what we are going to do, because we want everyone’s voice to be heard,” he continued. “We want to talk to those who are against it and understand why. Sometimes those are tough conversations, and it’s not much fun when someone gets angry or yells or something, but from a good government perspective that’s what we need to do. to do. We don’t just govern the Democrats who voted for Joe Biden, we represent the whole country, so we want everyone’s point of view. “
When the necessary information has been gathered from the parties concerned, the discussion returns within the department to discuss what is in the best interests of the different groups, how the issue should be approached and the effects of a decision, Anderson said, and a recommendation is developed for the Home Secretary, who makes the final decision.
COVID precautions still prevail in Washington, DC, but Anderson moved there a month ago from his home in Seattle to be more accessible to Secretary Haaland.
“I kinda felt like when I had to leave the station in the fall and go back to school,” Anderson said. “I go to the office every day now, but it’s just me and my executive assistant. It’s nice to be able to walk down the hall and talk to the chief of staff or assistant secretary or secretary instead of talking via video conference.
Anderson’s wife Marilyn Heiman, a conservation and energy policy consultant, has chosen not to move to Washington, he said.
“She was working for the Home Office under the Clinton administration when I did it, so that’s where we really met. We had both lived in Alaska for a while. It’s a strange thing, but we have accommodation in Anchorage, Alaska that we rent, where my wife is, and we have accommodation here. We figured we would split our time between Ely and Alaska at some point, but she didn’t want to move here.
Anderson’s daughter, Sydney, a Brown University graduate who works for the Louisiana Department of Education, is also juggling to spend time together.
“It’s weird to be in a situation where you’re kind of back to rambling like I did when I was 20,” Anderson said. “It’s pretty funny.”
And there’s always Thanksgiving, always the cabin, always summer and fishing and family and friends and more at Ely.

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