Indian Country laments retirement of 'one of us'
Thursday, March 4, 2004

Tribal and Indian leaders reacted with shock and surprise on Wednesday after learning that Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only American Indian in the U.S. Senate, will not seek re-election this year.

After 22 years of political service, the Republican from Colorado announced he was stepping down as the state's senior senator. He cited health problems, including his treatment for prostate cancer and two recent visits to the hospital, as reasons for his retirement.

"After spending another night in the hospital, I realize that deteriorating health may hamper my ability to serve," Campbell said in a statement. "Doctors have assured me that after treatment for prostate cancer, the recovery rate is 98%. But, I believe Coloradans deserve a 100% guarantee of service."

Campbell, 70, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, is regarded as one of the biggest advocates for Indian rights. Serving in both the House and Senate, most recently as chairman of the influential Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he took on a wide range of issues affecting Native Americans, including authentic arts, repatriation, trust reform, land claims and water rights.

"He is going to be missed in Indian County for his leadership and as a champion in Indian issues," said Geri Small, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. "It hasn't just been for his state. He's helped many, many tribes in Indian Country."

Born to a Northern Cheyenne father and a Portuguese immigrant mother, Campbell was "one of us," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "As an American Indian, he could relate to the culture, he could relate to the problems that existed on the reservation -- unemployment, alcoholism."

"He was like a common, every day Indian," Hall added. "He could relate to those issues on the reservation level. We won't have that anymore."

Suzan Shown Harjo, the founder of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., counts Campbell as one of her closest friends. Pointing to his record on sacred sites and repatriation, she said he was instrumental in protecting the religious rights of Native Americans.

Harjo, who is also Cheyenne, credited Campbell for "listening to the traditional people who aren't usually heard, listening to the very poor people who aren't usually heard [and] really taking extra time on how you change the federal laws and practices so they're not barriers in the exercise of traditional religion."

"I think Ben served us really, really well both as a Democrat and as a Republican," she added. Campbell switched parties on March 3, 1995.

Colleagues were equally surprised to learn of Campbell's pending departure. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the vice chairman of the Indian committee, said he was "shocked and saddened" by the news.

"Although he was a member of the Republican Party, Ben and I worked closely as a team on matters important to Indian Country," Inouye said. "Senator Campbell's retirement will be a great loss to the Senate, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and Indian Country."

Campbell chaired a hearing yesterday morning to approve a letter stating his committee's views on President Bush's latest budget, which Campbell has pledged to change in order to increase funding for Indian Country. The committee also received an update on the status of the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, which Campbell -- a noted artist -- helped create.

At the hearing, Campbell did not mention his plans to retire. He sent out his announcement in the afternoon, when Senate aides said they found out about the decision.

Campbell plans to serve the rest of his term and his last official day would be January 19, 2005. He was already stepping down from his top post at the Indian committee, as is Inouye.

Relevant Documents:
Campbell Statement | Sen. Daniel Inouye Statement | White House Statement | Sen. Wayne Allard | Reaction to Campbell's Decision

Relevant Links:
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell -

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