Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell: Former Democrat Turned Republican

Updated on November 14, 2018
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Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell

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Introduction

On November 3, 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat from Colorado. He was the eighth American Indian to serve in congress and the first to serve in the senate in sixty years. From 1987-92, he had represented Colorado's 3rd district, serving in the United States House of Representatives. He also sat on the House Committees on Agriculture, Interior, and Insular Affairs.

In 1995, Campbell switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. A fiscal conservative with a NARAL voting record of 21%, labeling him mostly anti-abortion, Campbell has said, "I've always been considered a moderate, to the consternation of the left wing of the Democratic Party. I imagine my continued moderacy will be now to the consternation of the right wing of the Republican Party."

Ben Campbell has always been considered a very independent spirited man. He credits that independence with his having grown up in an orphanage. He has said, "It made me very self-reliant and independent. If you have nobody to rely on, then you have got to do it yourself."

An important achievement of Campbell's is the renaming of the "Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument," in Montana, which had been called "Custer Battlefield National Monument." Indians had found the older appellation offensive; thus the change.

Early Life and Education

Campbell's mother was Portuguese and his father was Northern Cheyenne. After his mother died of tuberculosis, his alcoholic father surrendered his children to an orphanage. Campbell's birth name was "Ben Marshall Campbell." He did not embrace his Indian heritage until he discovered that his uncle, Alex Back Horse, had served as a leader of the Northern Cheyenne and that he also had relatives who had fought in the battle of Little Big Horn. In 1980, the Northern Cheyenne christened Ben with the name "Nighthorse."

Although Campbell had dropped out of high school, after acquiring his GED, he later graduated from San Jose State University, having put himself through school by serving as a truck driver. Her served in the US Air Force in Korea during the Korean War.

Later accomplishments include serving as captain of the USA judo team in the Olympics of 1964. He later took up the unusual pastime of jewelry making, departing in jewelry design from the traditional silver/turquoise to use of rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and gold.

Columbus Quincentenary

In early 1992, Campbell wrote an essay titled "Reflections on the Quincentenary" for a symposium, marking the quincentenary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in this hemisphere. In this essay, Campbell offers a useful overview of the history of American Indian culture from the time of Columbus.

Campbell does not gloss over the atrocities suffered by the native peoples at the hands of the Europeans: estimating that the native population of North America was approximately ten million before the arrival of Columbus, he says, "By 1900, the Indian population had dwindled because of imported disease, slavery, forced relocation, and outright genocide, to an estimated 100,000."

Nevertheless, instead of insisting that the "intruding" peoples were somehow naturally addicted to total annihilation of the native people as some radicals, such as the self-proclaimed native Ward Churchill, have done, Campbell takes a more moderate position, stating, "Today, about two million people are enrolled members of recognized tribes and another ten million Americans claim some Indian ancestry. This revival of our people and traditions gives us cause to rejoice in 1992."

Europeans and American Indians

The former senator makes it clear in his essay that there was a huge difference between the European culture that immigrated to North America and the native culture that had already been established here. He writes, "The invading culture viewed the native people as uncivilized innocents in need of religion, strange curiosities suitable for study, or murderous savages threatening settlements and westward expansion."

It was from these perceptions of the native peoples that policies of the United States government were formed. Unless they chose to join the European-style cultures as, of course, some did, the native peoples were not considered part of the new country, and if they did not voluntarily accept assimilation, they were removed to reservations and in some cases killed. That is the sad history, bad enough as it is, and it needs no embellishment by Ward Churchill and his ilk.

Citizenship Act of 1924

Far from a policy of genocide, the United States government and people have always purposed goals of peaceful coexistence with the native peoples; thus "the Citizenship Act of 1924 made all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States citizens." Then the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 provided for tribal recognition with more independent governments.

According to Campbell, "the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s allowed Indian tribes to get their foot in the door and establish aspects of sovereignty." He lauds President Johnson’s 1968 speech "The Forgotten Americans" for recognizing the plight of American Indians, and "In 1970, continuing this trend, President Nixon, in his State of the Union Address, issued a statement now regarded as the foundation of the current federal Indian policy of 'self-determination'."

Campbell also cites some Supreme Court rulings that have been favorable to tribes in increasing their sovereignty. But he laments that the trend of the Court might not bode well for future tribal litigation. This was three years before Campbell himself deserted the liberal party for the conservative.

The former senator’s brief overview gives a useful glimpse of the history of the native and European clash of cultures. He does not put a happy face on the situation, but neither does he try to make it worse than it was and then claim it is worse that it is.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell

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Ben Nighthorse Campbell Today

Former senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, supported Ohio governor John Kasich for president during the 2016 presidential campaign. And now he hopes the President Trump will be able to engage well with China, who Campbell sees as the key to reigning in North Korea. About this issue, Campbell has opined:

I think China really holds the key because China is like the patron saint of North Korea with something like 80 percent of North Korea’s exports going into China. And China has already cut off North Korea’s coal as part of their first step towards reining them in a little bit. But I don’t know if that’s going to work. Kim Jung Un—I don’t know of anybody who can actually try to reason with him. But I think China has a better chance of exerting pressure on him than any other nation, and China has an interest in this because if a war started over there, there’s going to be a mass exodus into China by scared-to-death North Koreans. So it’s in China’s best interest to find some solution. (Interview with Cheryl Wetzstein: "We owe it to families, American history to do best by them," Washington Times, May 24, 2017.)

At 84, Campbell now serves on the Council of Chiefs for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe; he is currently working to establish a National Native American Veterans Memorial.

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    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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