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Ely native takes the legal reins at U.S. Interior Department

Ties to community remain strong for Robert Anderson

David Colburn
Posted 11/4/21

ELY- He’s been on the job at the U.S Department of the Interior since day one of the Biden administration, working remotely until moving to Washington, D.C., about a month ago. Yet recently …

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Ely native takes the legal reins at U.S. Interior Department

Ties to community remain strong for Robert Anderson


ELY- He’s been on the job at the U.S Department of the Interior since day one of the Biden administration, working remotely until moving to Washington, D.C., about a month ago. Yet recently confirmed Solicitor Robert “Bob” Anderson is proof you can take a man out of Ely, but you can’t take Ely out of the man.
“We’re going to actually go to Ely for Thanksgiving,” Anderson said during a Tuesday interview with the Timberjay.
Anderson’s job as the top legal expert at Interior and supervisor of 430 attorneys working for the department in Washington, D.C., 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.
“When school ended, at the end of the year we moved out of our house in Ely and would go out to our resort, called Echo Trail Lodge, that my Indian grandparents, John Anderson Sr. and Mary Anderson, started in 1936. They had been working at Burntside Lodge and saved up some money, and my grandfather had gotten World War I bonus money that Congress provided. I think it was $2,000. They took that and put it as a down payment and borrowed the rest from some lawyer in Chicago who really liked my grandparents. My grandfather would take him fishing all the time and he was kind of a presence around the family. My dad was about 11 years old at the time, and he had a sister and two other brothers, and together the family 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 kept right on going with Echo Trail Lodge, and summers as Bob described them definitely weren’t lonely at the lake.
“My dad and my Uncle Jim did the lion’s share of the work since I was around in the 60s and 70s,” Anderson said. “I had an uncle named Bill Anderson, he had his wife, Caroline, and 11 kids, and they all lived on the property in a house up on the hill. And I had four older brothers. I had another three cousins on another side of the family from my aunt. So, altogether there were 21 grandchildren that were out there living and wow, it was a wild scene. We’re out playing in the woods, swimming, everybody was athletic, we’re all into sports and I think there was 18 boys and three girls. You know, we just lived the life, going to the public schools in Ely and spending the summer at the lake and winter in town. It was a pretty idyllic upbringing.”
Talking with Anderson, it’s clear that family has been central in his life, beginning with his parents, John and Eleanor. John passed away in 2006, and Eleanor in 2018. The couple met when they were both students at Ely Junior College and married in 1947.
“I miss them a lot,” Anderson said. “They did a really good job with us, bringing us up and getting us on the right path.”
“Us” includes Anderson’s brothers, John, Mark, Rick, and Dan.
“John was ten years older than I am. He was my high school hockey coach, my high school tennis coach, and my eighth-grade math teacher. That was his first job, teaching eighth grade, when he came back to Ely. He taught there his whole career.”
Mark was the brother who inspired Bob to consider the law as a profession.
“My brother Mark passed away, sadly, two years ago,” Anderson said. “He was the lawyer. He was in private practice in St. Paul and he was the Band’s lawyer at Bois Forte. He was a tribal attorney for probably 25-30 years and represented a lot of tribes in the upper Midwest. I moved away after I went to college, and I always joked that I had to move away because my brother had taken up all the air in the room for representing tribes.”
Brother Rick has lived in Ely his entire life, and he and Bob own cabins right next to each other.
“He’s a great hunter and fisherman,” Anderson said. “Last year we went up to Nett (Lake) and did some ricing. He’s always fishing and he’s always making something and working on a project. We spend a lot of time together.”
Dan is the brother Bob is closest to in age.
“He has worked for the education department at the Fond du Lac tribe for probably 35 years,” he said. “I guess you would say that everybody’s done pretty well for themselves. My parents were real happy about that.”
It’s also clear from his descriptions of family history, past and present, and from his career path ,that Anderson has a deep and abiding connection to his Native heritage and 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 tribes were not even acknowledged by the federal government. It was a strange time to grow up. Now you see Bois Forte owns the WELY radio station and they’re big economic players in the region. And I’ve been working here at DOI with a Native American Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, and the President is planning a big White House conference on tribal nations coming up on Nov. 15.”
Path to Interior
Anderson followed through on that inspiration from his brother Mark, graduating from the University of Minnesota with a law degree. His first job after college, with the Native American Rights Fund, took him away from Minnesota, and Ely has been home from afar ever since.
Much of Anderson’s career has been spent in the world of academia, directing the University of Washington’s Native American Law Center for 20 years and also teaching fall semesters at Harvard Law School while remaining on the faculty at Washington.
But Anderson is no stranger to government, either. From 2011 to 2013, Anderson participated in a five-person committee that reviewed the federal government’s management of $4 billion in Native American trust funds and suggested reforms to the program. He was associate Interior Solicitor for Native American affairs and a counselor to the Interior Secretary during former President Bill Clinton’s administration. He also advised Obama’s transition team in 2008 and 2009.
In the fall of 2020, Anderson once again was looking at a transition back to government service.
“One advantage that I had coming into the administration was that I was the co-lead for the transition team for the Biden campaign,” he said. “So, I had been doing interviews since about a year ago, at this time, we started getting ready before the election in case Biden won, doing outreach to different groups that have business before the department.”
At Interior
When he started with the administration in January, Anderson performed all the duties of the Solicitor as Principal Deputy Solicitor until he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Sept. 29. Anderson described the scope of his duties at Interior.
“I’m the general counsel to the Department of the Interior,” he said. “I oversee all legal affairs of the department, and I’m the person who’s entitled to state what the legal position of the Department of the Interior is on all matters under our jurisdiction. And there’s a lot of jurisdiction. Thirty percent of the land in the country is under our authority, plus the entire outer continental shelf, which is where oil and gas drilling takes place.”
Anderson has five political deputies to help oversee the affairs of the department.
“To some extent, my office runs itself, because I’ve got very competent career managers and great career lawyers,” he said.
One of the first orders of business under Anderson’s leadership was to an initiate a review of legal positions issued under the previous administration.
“At the end of the Trump era, one of the reasons why I wanted to come in was to sort of undo some of the damage that we as Democrats thought had been done by the Trump administration,” Anderson said. “So, we spent a significant amount of time reviewing our legal position in cases, and in some instances have changed the position of the government.”
The work is challenging and gratifying, but it’s certainly different from university life.
“I don’t get to do as much hardcore legal work as I love to do,” Anderson said. “I’ve been a law professor and really enjoyed studying the law and writing papers and articles and books. But now I’m more of a generalist, overseeing all of these different cases, making decisions about strategy in terms of our legal position, advising Secretary Haaland about complicated matters and making recommendations to her.”
Anderson couldn’t comment on issues that are involved in ongoing litigation, such as the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine, but he did share the approach the department uses in dealing with hot-button issues.
“What we do on all of these decisions is we do outreach, we talk to both sides of a matter,” he said. “If we’re going to change their position and go to litigation, we talk to the parties to the case.”
“We do take care to talk to people who we know are going to be opposed to what we’re 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 difficult conversations, and it’s not a lot of fun when somebody gets angry or is yelling or something like that, but from a good government perspective that’s what we ought to do. We don’t just govern the Democrats that voted for Joe Biden, we represent the entire country, so we want everybody’s point of view.”
When the needed input has been collected from relevant parties, the discussion turns back inside the department to discuss what’s in the interest of the different groups, how the matter should be approached, and what the effects of a decision will be, Anderson said, and a recommendation is developed for the Secretary of Interior, who makes the ultimate decision.
In D.C.
COVID precautions still prevail in Washington, D.C., but Anderson moved there a month ago from his home in Seattle to be more accessible to Secretary Haaland.
“I kind of felt like I did when I had to leave the resort in the fall and go back to school,” Anderson said. “I go into the office every day now, but it’s only me and my executive assistant. It’s nice to be able to walk down the hall and talk to the chief of staff or the Deputy Secretary or the Secretary as opposed to talking over a video conference.”
Anderson’s wife, Marilyn Heiman, a conservation and energy policy consultant, chose not to move to D.C., he said.
“She worked for the Department of the Interior back in the Clinton administration when I did, so that’s where we really met. We both had lived in Alaska for a while. It’s an odd thing, but we have a place in Anchorage, Alaska, that we’re renting, where my wife is, and we have a place out here. We figured we’ll split our time between Ely and Alaska at some point, but she didn’t want to move out here.”
Also in the juggling for time together is the Anderson’s daughter, Sydney, a Brown University graduate who works for the Louisiana Department of Education.
“It’s weird to be in a situation where you’re kind of back to rambling around like I used to when I was in my 20s,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of fun.”
And there’s always Thanksgiving, always the cabin, always summer and fishing and family and friends and more in Ely.


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