Bennett: Rain dance comment was just 'a joke'
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MONDAY, MARCH 24, 2003

Tribal leaders and Indian advocates are calling on a Senate Republican to apologize for making insensitive and inappropriate comments about American Indian culture.

At a hearing last Thursday, Bob Bennett (R-Utah) suggested a "rain dance" might be needed in order to alleviate drought problems in the West. The subject of the remark was Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana and the only American Indian in the Senate.

"Aside from doing a rain dance and making it rain, we'll assign that to Senator Campbell, I'm not sure what you can do," Bennett told a Bush administration official.

Campbell was at the hearing and brushed off the comment. But Geri Small, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said it was no laughing matter.

"I think it's very offensive to tribes and Indian people," she said on Friday. "I think [Bennett] should apologize. He should apologize to Ben and Indian tribes. I don't consider it to be a joke."

Suzan Harjo, founder of the Morningstar Institute, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, was equally incensed. Also of Cheyenne descent, Harjo considers herself a close friend of Campbell. She said Bennett's behavior was worse than last year's gaffe by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was ousted from his post as Senate majority leader for suggesting America would have been better off with racial segregation.

"It's very specific about specific Native ceremonies and saying that they don't count for anything, that they can be laughed about and that it's a trivial thing," she said of Bennett's comments. "It's minimizing and diminishing the importance of something that's mightily important."

Bennett's office was first contacted on Thursday after the hearing. Spokesperson Mary Jane Collipriest couldn't comment immediately but was dismissive of concern that the remarks might be considered offensive.

On Friday, Collipriest said there was nothing to worry about. "[Bennett] was stressing that the West is desperate for water and he said we need it any way we can get it," she reported. "He suggested even one of the things we might rely on is Senator Campbell doing a rain dance, as a joke."

Attempts to reach Camden Hubbard, a spokesperson for Campbell, on Friday were unsuccessful. Collipriest said Campbell "clearly" wasn't offended.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, didn't find the explanation satisfactory.

"It's beyond Senator Campbell," he said. "It's offensive towards all American Indians. It's insulting and it really has no taste."

"I think [Bennett] should make an apology to Indian people and to Senator Campbell," he added.

Bennett, in his second term in the Senate, came under fire in late 1999 for making a racially insensitive comment during President Bush's campaign. Speaking to the editorial board of a Utah newspaper, he said Bush would be the GOP nominee unless "George W. steps in front of a bus or some woman comes forward, let's say some Black woman comes forward with an illegitimate child that he fathered within the last 18 months."

Bennett apologized after facing pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "I had no intention of offending anyone," he said at the time.

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Sen. Bob Bennett -
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