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Ben Nighthorse Campbell

In 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a rancher, teacher, judo champion, and jewelry designer became the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate in more than 60 years.

Campbell was born April 13, 1933, in Auburn, California, the son of Albert Valdez Campbell, who was part Northern Cheyenne Indian, and Mary Vierra, a Portuguese immigrant. His mother was a patient and occasional employee at a tuberculosis sanitorium when she met his father, who also worked there. They were married in 1929 and had two children, Campbell and his sister, Alberta Campbell, who died at the age of 44, an apparent suicide.

Campbell's father was an alcoholic who frequently disappeared, leaving Campbell's mother to support and care for the children. Campbell and his sister spent time in orphanages and foster homes when their mother was too sick to work and provide for them. Eventually, his father was able to work and the family opened a small grocery store, which prospered later when a freeway was built with an exit ramp at the location of the store.

When Campbell entered high school he had little sense of enthusiasm or direction concerning his education. In 1950, he dropped out and joined the U.S. Air Force. He served in the KOREAN WAR and was discharged from the service with the rank of airman, second class. He passed the high school equivalency test to receive his general equivalency diploma, and in 1957 graduated from San Jose State University with a bachelor's degree in physical education and fine arts.

When he was a teenager Campbell became interested in judo and it became a driving force in his life. "Judo teaches you to persevere, to never give up," he said. "That skill is transferable to business, to school, to politics." Campbell continued to develop his judo skill while he was in the service, and after completing college, he moved to Tokyo, where he lived for four years, studying at Meiji University and perfecting his abilities. In 1963, he won a gold medal at the Pan-American Games and, in 1964, he was captain of the U.S. Olympic Judo Team at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Campbell's interest in judo continued throughout his life. After the 1964 Olympics he returned to California to teach high school physical education. During the summers he conducted judo camps for children. He also pioneered judo instruction in physical education programs at California high schools. During this period he met Linda Price—they were married in 1966 and had two children, Shanan, also known as Sweet Medicine Woman, and Colin, whose Indian name is Takes Arrows.

Eventually, Campbell left his job as a physical education teacher and set up an industrial arts program at an alternative high school for troubled students. He also developed a jewelry-making class for adult Native American students, which fueled his interest in his Native American heritage. When Campbell was growing up, his father hesitated to talk about his ancestry because of his fear that the family would be subjected to discrimination. But Campbell persisted, and his father finally gave him information that led him to relatives on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. There, in 1980, he was officially enrolled as a member of the Black Horse family and of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Currently he is one of 44 chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne.

Campbell entered the world of politics by chance. He attended a Colorado DEMOCRATIC

Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

PARTY meeting in May 1982 hoping to see a friend whom he thought might be there. Party officials were trying to find someone willing to run for state representative from Campbell's district against a Republican who was considered a certain winner. No one but Campbell was willing to take on the challenge. To everyone's great surprise, he not only won but carried 57 percent of the vote, including 15 percent of the crossover vote from the Republican side.

Campbell was a Democrat whose blend of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism made him an enigma. During his two terms in the Colorado legislature he was instrumental in the passage of landmark legislation to settle disputes over Native American WATER RIGHTS. Early in his political career, he learned that his positions angered extremists on both ends of the political spectrum. He has little tolerance for single-issue zealots. "I learned early on that the more extreme their position or ideology, the less they have in common with the majority of the electorate," he said. "[They] reduce everything in America to a single issue. They do not judge a legislator on total performance, on what that representative is doing for everybody. They are concerned only with what a legislator does for them on that one single issue."


In 1986, Campbell decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado's third district. Since Native Americans constitute only two percent of the population of the district, Campbell and his campaign manager decided to downplay his heritage. However, his Native American background along with his diverse credentials—high school dropout, Korean War veteran, small-business owner, Olympic athlete, artist, truck driver, teacher, rancher, and state legislator—was a potent and irresistibly novel combination for both voters and the media. Ordinary people could identify with him as "one of them." The result was a 52–48 percent win for Campbell, making him one of only six challengers nationwide to unseat an incumbent in 1986. On January 6, 1987, he stood proudly between Joseph P. Kennedy II, son of the late ROBERT F. KENNEDY, and JOHN LEWIS, son of an African American Georgia sharecropper, to be sworn in and take his seat in the One Hundredth Congress.

During his three terms as a U.S. representative, Campbell acted as a spokesman for all Native Americans, not just those he represented from Colorado. He cosponsored legislation to establish the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. He also fought to have the Custer National Battlefield Monument renamed the Little Big Horn National Battlefield Monument. The Montana monument, which honors the 1876 battle between General George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry and a group of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians camped on the banks of the Little Big Horn River, memorialized and glorified the two hundred soldiers, including General Custer, who perished there. Until 1991 only a wooden marker commemorated the loss of Indian lives. In 1991, largely through Campbell's efforts, Congress changed the monument's name and authorized a more prominent memorial to the Indians who fought and died there.

Toward the end of his third term as a U.S. representative, Campbell expected to retire from politics. However, in April 1992, when Senator Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) unexpectedly announced he would not run for reelection, Campbell decided to run for Wirth's seat. He defeated three-term governor Richard D. Lamm to gain the Democratic Party nomination, but the campaign turned out to be an uphill struggle. Campbell at one point had a ten-point lead over his Republican opponent, but it began to slip. He became discouraged and turned to friends for advice. Their prescription was unorthodox: they prayed for him and performed rituals on his behalf, and advised him to paint his body with red war paint and carry an eagle feather at all times. Campbell did not question their wisdom; he did as they advised, and almost immediately his ratings in the polls improved. Campbell won the election by nearly ten percent and returned to Washington to become the first Native American senator in over 60 years.

During his first term in the Senate, Campbell was appointed to five key committees: Energy and Natural Resources; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Democratic Policy; Veterans Affairs; and Indian Affairs.

In March 1995, barely two years into his Senate term, Campbell surprised and angered the Democratic Party by announcing that he was switching affiliation and aligning himself with the Republicans. The Democratic Party responded by calling Campbell a turncoat and Benedict Campbell, and demanding the return of $255,000 in donated funds used to help elect him to the Senate. Campbell replied that his record of voting with the Democratic leadership on most issues should be repayment for the party's support.

In the 1998 elections, Campbell was reelected by a wide margin over long-time ABORTION rights supporter Dottie Lamm who, like Campbell, described herself as a fiscal conservative who is socially progressive. Campbell is a member of four major Senate committees: the Appropriations Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Veterans' Affairs Committee; and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He also chaired the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission).

Campbell has continued to portray himself as a jewelry-making, Harley-riding, maverick member of Congress, but his legislative agenda has become increasingly aligned with big business. Environmentalists have criticized Campbell for taking campaign contributions from groups that are financed by timber, mining, gas, and oil companies. Campbell also generated controversy after sponsoring legislation to transfer a federally-owned dam and reservoir to a privately owned land consortium. He failed to disclose that he was one of the group's largest landholders.


U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Available online at <campbell.senate.gov> (accessed June 19, 2003).

Viola, Herman J. 1993. Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior. New York: Orion Books.

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