Campbell's long career marked by contradictions
Friday, March 5, 2004

Throughout his 22 years of public service, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a man of contradictions. It wasn't just because he switched parties, although that had something to do with it.

A lot of Campbell's contradictions arose because, for a long time, he was the only American Indian in national politics. His heritage proved to be a blessing because it put him in a unique position to advance Indian issues. As President Bush recognized this week, Campbell "was a tireless champion for Native Americans."

But while Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, took on the role with great pride, it also could be a burden. He didn't always like being thought of as the "go-to" guy on all things Indian.

"I'm Colorado's senator, not the Indian senator-at-large," he once told The Denver Post when asked about Indian-led protests on Columbus Day. He revived the complaint earlier this year when asked about a casino bid by Cheyenne descendants.

Campbell was a Democrat when a Republican president slashed Indian programs and threatened to dismantle the federal trust relationship. While serving in the House of Representatives, Campbell found himself outraged when Ronald Reagan said Indians should give up their "primitive lifestyle" and "be citizens along with the rest of us."

"He must have been learning from these old celluloid Westerns of the 1930s he used to act in," Campbell said in early June 1988.

Yet many years later, Campbell found himself being compared to the man who knew "so little" about American Indians. At a fundraiser last November, Vice President Dick Cheney praised Campbell, Reagan and George W. Bush as "steady leaders."

As a politician who didn't follow the crowd, Campbell defied categorization and broke stereotypes. As an Indian, he was sometimes at the receiving end of them. Last March, a colleague suggested he perform a "rain dance" to combat drought conditions in the West.

Campbell, while surprised with the comment, brushed it off even though members of his tribe and other Indian leaders took offense.

Still, Campbell would rush to decry racism against fellow Indians. When a South Dakota newspaper ran a fake ad announcing an "Indian Hunting Season," he was compelled to respond. "Just as the use of Indian mascots perverts the perception of Indian people, this ad dehumanizes Native Americans and legitimizes violence against them," he wrote in November 1999 to then-U.S. attorney general Janet Reno.

And when talk at a recent hearing turned to a Grammy performance by a hip-hop group that many found distasteful, Campbell drew a parallel to desecration of sacred sites and mascot use. "A lot of the momentum is developing in Indian Country to say, 'Enough is enough,'" he observed.

Incidents like these, and all their conflicts and complexities, were the mark of a great man, according to Suzan Shown Harjo, a fellow Cheyenne and close friend. She worked with Campbell to develop and pass repatriation law, one of the issues he tirelessly advanced.

"Was he all things to all people? Nope." she said. "Was he an Indian for all seasons? No."

"But what he did was monumental and really cannot be discounted."

In the last two Congressional sessions, Campbell chaired and co-chaired more than 70 hearings on a wide range of issues, from sacred sites to federal recognition to economic development. Not every one resulted in a successful bill. In fact, some of the more significant packages -- on gaming, trust reform and health care reauthorization -- are either mired in the Senate or the House.

But when he does leave the Senate, he can count a number of other achievements, including a massive water rights settlement for two Ute tribes in his home state, the strengthening of the authentic Native art market, an increase in Indian loan guarantees, the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., reform of development on Indian lands, an expansion of self-determination and self-governance programs, the creation of the Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site in Colorado and the removal of George Armstrong Custer's name from the Little Bighorn Battlefield Site in Montana.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Campbell has also worked to boost funding when presidents, Democrat and Republican, have not provided levels he considered adequate. On the day he announced his retirement, he approved a letter through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee calling on improvements to President Bush's latest budget.

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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